This Boy’s Life

This Boy’s Life is probably one of my top ten favorite movies. I’ve seen it several times, including again just recently.

It certainly has an all-star cast, featuring Robert De Niro, a very young Leonardo DiCaprio, and Ellen Barkin.

This Boy’s Life is the movie version of writer Tobias Wolff’s book of the same name, a memoir of his adolescence.

At the start of the movie, young Toby is on the road with his single mother. The mother is a loving, good woman, but wacky to a degree, spontaneous to a fault, a big but not always realistic dreamer, prone to gravitating to abusive men.

To some extent they are at their best on their own, relying on each other and their own resourcefulness, without the complicating factor of some ogre guy trying to control them. But she comes to believe that this is not a sustainable life, and in large part it’s because Toby’s behavior is deteriorating.

He doesn’t seem to be a bad kid at a deep level, and he’s clearly devoted to his mother and wants things to work with her, but he just doesn’t have the necessary maturity and falls into juvenile delinquent habits of lying, stealing, getting in trouble at school, and chasing girls (unsuccessfully, though that doesn’t stop him from claiming otherwise to his delinquent buddies). His mother is trying to scrape together enough money to keep a roof over their head any way she can, and it reaches the point where she just doesn’t have it in her to do that plus keep putting out all the fires that arise from Toby’s misbehavior.

They are in Seattle at the time (for no particular reason except it’s the latest place she spontaneously decided to try). She has had a small number of dates with a man named Dwight, a single father with three kids who lives out in the sticks (Concrete, Washington). He is extroverted and I suppose charming in kind of an exaggerated, showy way, but from another angle rather buffoonish. I think she sees both those sides of him, is somewhat intrigued though far from sold on him as a serious mate, but is also running out of options.

Dwight pushes for marriage suspiciously early. She’s ambivalent. I’d say ambivalent leaning strongly toward rejecting this as a bad idea, but, again, she doesn’t think she can hack it alone anymore, not with Toby being so out of control, so really she has to think of it in terms of the least of the available evils, and even with her misgivings Dwight might be that.

But she doesn’t want to move forward with it unless Toby is OK with it. Frankly it’s pretty clear she’s hoping he’ll veto the idea. For his part it’s equally clear that he has at least as serious misgivings as she does, but he’s reluctant to voice them because he feels guilty that he’s the one who has forced them into this position, and so if he has to suffer by agreeing to an arrangement he doesn’t welcome, well, he figures, maybe he deserves it.

The three of them agree that Toby will live with Dwight and his family over the summer, and if that goes well then the marriage will take place after that.

It doesn’t go well (Dwight shows his dark side the very first night driving Toby to Concrete, as he drinks from the liquor bottle he produces from his coat pocket, drives like a maniac to frighten the boy, and browbeats him with threats about the tyrannical life that awaits him at his temporary home), but Toby fails to take advantage of this additional opportunity to escape from the doom he sees awaiting him and his mother. More to her disappointment than not, he chooses not to veto the marriage, and so finds himself with a new stepfather.

The remainder of the film chronicles their unhappy life in Concrete. Toby goes through the usual ups and downs, the emotional turmoil, of being a teenager, with this constant complicating factor of dealing with a brutal stepfather. There are flashes of normality, times he’s able to convince himself that there is a possible father-son relationship developing here, but mostly the relationship is an antagonistic one. And his mother is caught in the middle.

She quickly realizes that this was all a big mistake, but, as she confesses to Toby on one occasion, she just doesn’t have it in her anymore to return to their old life. The spirit, the derring do, the optimism, have been squeezed out of her, partly from living on the edge for too many years like that, partly from aging, partly from how draining it has been to deal with a son who always seems to be in trouble, and partly (I suspect mostly) from now being beaten down by this bad marriage.

It’s Toby’s story, but in his way Dwight is the central character, or at least the character who most demands one’s attention. As I expressed in an essay I wrote about the book version of This Boy’s Life, the story resonates with me in a very personal way because I feel like there’s something in Dwight’s essence that reminds me of the kind of person my father was.

There’s really no more than modest overlap in terms of any of the specifics. It’s something deeper than that. There’s a fundamental mean-spiritedness, a pettiness, a smallness to Dwight that I also saw in my father. They are the kind of insecure males who feel like failures or feel powerless for the most part, but who could never admit that and thus who react to it with an almost comic level of bravado and with an insistence on being dictators within their families and exercising a kind of crazy, irrational control over that sphere of life.

They’re ultimately more pathetic than evil. But having been, in effect, in Toby’s shoes, having suffered through a childhood dominated by such an unhealthy male figure, I know just what it feels like. It’s like this omnipresent negative energy, a cloud hanging over one’s home and one’s life. Every day is a subtle struggle to hold your own against this force that’s wearing you down. Always there’s the hope that one day you can escape.

One day I did. And one day Toby does (and grows up to be celebrated writer Tobias Wolff). Once he breaks the spell, his mother is able to free herself as well. (Which actually also has a pretty close parallel in my life, the way I, though the youngest, was the first to rebel and the first to break free of that deadening environment, and the way that that then seemingly stirred something in other members of my family to follow my lead, albeit never as fully nor as successfully.)

So watching This Boy’s Life is always an emotional experience for me. In his way, Dwight is as unnerving and ominous a character (while at the same time being a pathetic, ridiculous figure) as any that De Niro has portrayed. I feel like Toby and I share through experience a certain insight into what it is to feel trapped in a childhood dominated by the negative energy of such a dime store villain, which thankfully is the kind of nightmare only a minority of kids have to fight their way through.

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