Caroline drifts from State to State and boyfriend to boyfriend, dragging her now teenage son along with her. Finally it seems she may have met the man of her dreams, in the shape of Robert De Niro's Dwight. After excitedly making plans to stay this time and begin a new life, it becomes apparent they were a little swift to judge.
The ubiquitous Robert De Niro rings the changes yet again in an emotionally high-pitched coming-of-age period drama adapted from the autobiography of award-winning American writer Tobias Wolff, whose troubled adolescence was exacerbated by a bullying stepfather.
Ellen Barkin is divorcee Caroline, a pretty, ever-optimistic woman whose way of resolving problems is to run from them, and who drags her understandably moody son Toby (Di Caprio) around the country on one feckless rainbow chase after another between liaisons with losers and abusers. Then, in Seattle in 1958, the apparently stable nerd Dwight (De Niro) enters their lives and overwhelms Caroline with comically gentlemanly wooing. But once ineffectual mother and incipient, juvenile deliquent Toby a bright smart-ass who affects the greasy quiffed rebellious style of the day are snared, Dwight's mean, sadistic, unpredictably cruel character is revealed with horrifying rapidity. And Barkin, whose Caroline sinks into weary acceptance, is then consigned to the role of cowed bystander, as man and youth engage in physical and psychological combat.
An exploration of what it is to be a man and how small men reinvent themselves as bigshots by tormenting the weak, this is full of powerful emoting and is painstakingly redolent of time, place and mood, right down to the eclectic soundtrack. But just as De Niro struggles arresting, but a bit too much so to find a balance between pained humour and the unbearable circumstances that prompted Toby's elaborate plan of escape to a new life, the film also struggles to find its tone. Despite its admirable strengths and the fact of it being a true story, there is somehow a failure to completely connect with the fierce boy, giving his unhappy and alienating youth an unfortunate air of unreality.
A young DiCaprio steals the show in this tale of learning how to be a man, with a sly De Niro also giving a good performance, but with a plot that drags on too long, and a script that uneasily changes from drama to comedy and back to drama, you perhaps feel these actors' talents have been wasted on a potentially great film.