NEW YORK — WHY is the subject of family life getting more and more attention from Hollywood filmmakers?
One reason might be the lingering effect of last year's political campaign. Some politicians tried to define "family values" in strict and prescriptive terms that many Americans, it turned out, found too monolithic and simplistic for comfort. In the aftermath, many people are taking a new look at what families ought to stand for, and it's natural for filmmakers to join in this activity.
Another reason is continuing uncertainty over the stability of families as an institution. Tales of family dysfunction - along with school problems, housing troubles, and other ills related to family life - appear in news articles on a daily basis. This is fueling concerns in popular culture as well as in more sophisticated circles. Movies as different as "Jack the Bear," the "Home Alone" comedies, and the Canadian film "Leolo," reflect the resulting uneasiness about family life today.
"This Boy's Life" is the latest and best picture in the current family-movie cycle. Based on Tobias Wolff's respected autobiography, it centers on a teenage boy named Toby who's faced with plenty of challenges. His parents are divorced. His mother, Caroline, has little money and fewer job skills. Toby has little idea of the direction he wants his life to follow.
As if all this weren't enough for Toby to contend with, his mother decides to marry her latest boyfriend. His name is Dwight, and his charm is more apparent to a romantic divorcee like Caroline than to her guarded and suspicious son. Dwight decides to bring order and discipline into Toby's life by moving his new wife and stepson to the remote Washington town where his own three children live - a place called Concrete, and just as grim and boring as it sounds.
Toby tries to live a normal adolescent life despite the tedium of Concrete and the bullying of his new stepfather, whose idea of discipline often crosses the line into physical and emotional abuse. But daily experience becomes a series of battles with his family and the larger environment around them. It seems doubtful that Toby will ever surmount the forces that want to stifle his energy, kill his creativity, and make him into as deadly a robot as Dwight and his Concrete cronies.
The screenplay for "This Boy's Life" was written by Robert Getchell, and the movie begins like a remake of his most celebrated film: "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore," directed by Martin Scorsese in 1975. Again we see a mother and son head out for a new start in life, with only a hope and a dream to support them; and again we see their experiences shaped largely by the men who barge into their paths, clearly more interested in the young woman than in any offspring she may have.
"This Boy's Life" takes off in its own direction, though, when it becomes clear that Caroline isn't as flighty as Alice was. She quickly sees the failings Dwight has, but she puts more stock in her relationship with him (troubled as it is) than in her wishes for a happier life - even after she realizes that he regards physical violence as a perfectly legitimate way of getting what he wants.
Although the story is told from Toby's point of view, "This Boy's Life" depicts many revealing things about all three of its main characters - thanks partly to Mr. Getchell's skillfully written screenplay and to the excellent performances that give the movie startling resonance at times.
Toby is played by Leonardo DiCaprio, best known from the television series "Growing Pains," with a supple style that moves convincingly between sullen hostility and sympathetic vulnerability, both of which are part of the teenager's personality. Caroline is expertly played by Ellen Barkin, who is growing steadily more mature and assured in her movie work.
And the difficult character of Dwight is played by Robert De Niro in one of the most vivid and forceful portrayals he has given us in recent years - capturing Dwight in all his bluster and brutality, yet subtly reminding us that Dwight is also a victim, and that his own doubtlessly miserable adolescence would probably make a heart-wrenching tale if it had a movie of its own.
"This Boy's Life" is heavy-handed and obvious at certain points, and its supporting performances aren't always up to the high standard set by the stars of the picture.
It is vastly more intelligent and thought-provoking than other recent movies on family dysfunction, though, including such pretentious ones as "Jack the Bear" and the dismal "Radio Flyer," which marked the low ebb of the cycle.
The picture was directed by Scottish filmmaker Michael Caton-Jones, whose earlier work includes the less-memorable "Scandal" and "Memphis Belle." David Watkin did the carefully crafted cinematography. Credit for the movie's sharp sense of 1950s atmosphere goes to production designer Stephen Lineweaver and costume designer Richard Hornung. Carter Burwell composed the score.
* `This Boy's Life' has an * rating. It contains a great deal of vulgar language and dialogue, a fairly explicit sex scene, and violence.