Michael Caton-Jones’s This Boy’s Life is based on a true story of abuse, of which there are thousands every year, many heard and many unheard. This one doesn’t end up as bad as some or as good as others but I liked that it didn’t make the abuse a centrepiece for the film and rather used it to show a fascinating character dynamic between 50’s teenager Tobias (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his nasty stepfather Dwight (Robert DeNiro). Tobias and his mother (Ellen Barkin) come from a free spirited background, abandoned by his birth father and left to roam the States looking for a new provider. She meets and marries Dwight pretty quick, and Tobias also figures out what he’s made of real quick too. Dwight is a nasty, bitter, violent, pathetic piece of human garbage whose self esteem is so low he’s just gotta take it out on others around him, often in a cartoonish way. He’s the type of guy that if you fronted on him in a bar or he got in your grille, you’d just laugh and brush him off rather than fight because you just feel sorry for the guy. Tobias is a teenager though and can’t actually stand up to him in a brawl, making him a prime target for years of physical and psychological abuse which his mom refuses to be a referee. This isn’t a sad or depressing film because we realize that this can’t go on forever, the real life man it’s based on grew up to be a successful professor of literature and the film is never downbeat, just desperate. This is Leo’s debut lead role and he kills it, finding that anger and resilience that will go on to be building blocks in his now legendary career. DeNiro is very anti DeNiro here if you catch my drift. Used to playing extroverted alpha males, he switches it up for an extroverted weasel who thinks he’s hot shit. The only thing I would have eighty-sixed is the Fargo style Minnesota accent he tries on for size as it doesn’t suit him and he’s never been an accent savvy actor. Watch for an uncomfortable appearance from Chris Cooper as well as striking early career work from Carla Gugino, Tobey McGuire and Eliza Dushku who is so young here she’s unrecognizable. This film feels loose and episodic at times but remember these are someone’s memories here and those can be tricky, illusory beasts. I love the way it feels, like several slices of life during adolescence, a point where life can be at its most tempestuous and confusing, therefore making for excellent material. Set in the lush Pacific Northwest and attuned with production design that is studious to the 50’s aesthetic, this is a great film for any actor to find their debut in.