Two years ago, moviegoers had a prime opportunity to see Leonardo DiCaprio play a brave frontiersman who gets dramatically mauled by a bear. It was a masterful performance which earned him an Oscar. Roughly twenty years earlier, when Leo was at the beginning of his film career, moviegoers also had a great opportunity to see Leo get beaten up – repeatedly – in “This Boy’s Life.” His nemesis was none other than Robert DeNiro, playing an abusive stepfather, against who young Leo held his own. The movie was a film adaption of the memoir of Tobias Wolff. The movie also features a young Tobey Maguire as one of Tobias’s high school friends, not a big role but still showing a glimpse of the promise to come.
The saga begins in 1957 with Ellen Barkin as the mom fleeing her abusive boyfriend with Leo, her son in tow, but the mood is upbeat because they’re out for adventure and ready to strike it rich in Utah via a uranium detector. Ellen is divorced from Leo’s real dad, who retains custody of the other son (who also becomes a published writer as an adult), an arrangement that works better with non-identical twin children, as the chance of them meeting at summer camp and switching places in hopes of reuniting their folks is nil. In their new locale, they don’t find much in the way of uranium, but Ellen does attract a suitor (Robert) who in the guise of an amiable dork manages to insinuate himself into their lives. Though Leo pegs him as harmless and mocks him behind his back mercilessly, there are signs that Robert is not quite what he appears – such as when they go to a turkey shoot, and he sulks when out-performed by Ellen. But after he pulls out of his funk, things snap back to normal and because Leo may be heading for juvenile hall, it’s agreed that he’ll go stay with Robert and his three children, prior to Ellen marrying and joining them.
It’s on the ride back to his new home – named Concrete, really – that Leo realizes that he’s misjudged Robert, who is on his home turf, an insecure bully and that he is “in for a whole other ball game.” Though he shows his true colors with Ellen on their wedding night no less, Ellen no longer has the gumption to do anything but try and make the best of things where she and Leo are. That means negotiating the rapids of Robert’s moods on a daily basis, which is a rather rough ride. But Leo does make a friend in Jonah Bleechman who in a small role, manages to make many girls watching jealous after he gets to kiss Leo (on the cheek). As time goes on, however, life under Robert’s reign becomes unbearable, so Leo hatches a plan to attend boarding school. With help from his older brother, Leo manages to land a scholarship, and eventually, thanks to a jar of mustard (really) both Ellen and Leo escape. The school itself is not going to turn out to be a panacea, but what matters is that they are finally free. It’s too bad that the movie has to end, as all the cast is excellent, but it’s just as well given Robert’s level of maturity.