A screen script by Robert Getchell adapted from the novel by Tobias Wolff, This Boy’s Life, under direction of Michael Caton-Jones, is a fifties style domestic tragedy averted. Two elements allow this story the credibility required to set it apart the usual stereotypic play Hollywood usually gives those plots delving into domestic turmoil, incredible acting and a grasp of the period setting. This movie gives you both in abundance.

Robert De Niro, as the Canadian twanging megalomaniac step-father, Dwight Hansen, hell-bent that none under his sway will succeed him in any way, brings to his role the usual De Niro flair but gifts it with an authenticity only study and appreciation for complexity allow. His wife, Caroline, played by the lovely, Ellen Barkin, portrays a young mother whose “best of all possible worlds” has narrowed to accepting Hansen as husband and as step-father for her spirited teenage son, Tobias, played brilliantly by Leonardo DiCaprio. Barkin’s performance is that pivotal to making all other roles click and she delivers beyond all expectation. Clearly the best performance of hers this reviewer has seen. Supporting roles are performed with professionalism and polish, with the best portrayal that of Jonah Blechman as, Arthur Gayle, the small town of Concrete’s resident teenage gay.

The film has many sterling moments, the kind that remain intact long into the lifetimes of those that experience them. Characterizations are honest and interesting and the gripping suspense building toward an inevitable clash between step-father and step-son (only in this case that of maniac versus indomitable will) is riveting.

The test in all human relations is self-worth. Without it overcompensating becomes, under stress, capable of pitched madness. Even those trying best to fit into the world dominated by such self-perceived alpha dog constraints can abide them only so long before they become cast into something “concreted” or fixed into but one potential….euphemistically represented so well by the town’s name, Concrete, and anyone accepting a future there.

Biographical story that broadens to allegory…as good as it gets.

Some rough language, little nudity, but brutalization in a love scene…otherwise this could be an instructive family movie. Perhaps it should be anyway.