Finding Freedom in “This Boy’s Life”

Photo Courtesy of | Robert DeNiro and Leonardo DiCaprio star in “This Boy’s Life” (1993).

Photo Courtesy of | Robert DeNiro and Leonardo DiCaprio star in “This Boy’s Life” (1993).

Marissa Hank ‘20
Assistant Arts Editor

Based on a true story, “This Boy’s Life” (1993) tells the tale of Tobias Wolff’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) journey through adolescence. Set in the late 1950’s, this film is a memoir, revealing the horrors of domestic violence and the emotional scars that both physical and verbal abuse leave on an adolescent.

After Tobias’s parents separated when he was young, the nasty divorce left Tobias with an absentee father and an older brother who never wrote to him. His mother, Caroline (Ellen Barkin), moves from Florida to Utah in hopes of creating a better life for her son. However, once she realizes her new relationship is unhealthy, she and Tobias pack their bags yet again. Upon arriving in Seattle, they begin to happily settle into their new lives.

Caroline begins dating a man named Dwight who has the demeanor of a true gentleman (played by Robert DeNiro). After a few months of dating, their courtship turns into marriage. On their first night as husband and wife, Dwight reveals his true colors by asserting his dominance in the bedroom. Even though this encounter emotionally frightens his wife, Caroline has no energy left to leave another failed relationship. Instead she promises herself that she will strive to make this marriage work by never contributing to any arguments or raising her voice. Caroline’s famous line, “I won’t referee” sets the stage for the abuse that ensues between Dwight and her son, Tobias.

Even though this film was released twenty-three years ago in 1993, the heavy subject matter still holds poignancy today. Back in the 1950’s when this story unfolded, domestic violence was never publicly discussed. Women kept their home lives separate from their social scene. Families maintained the American “cookie-cutter” persona in public while hiding any abuse occurring behind closed doors.

When this film was released in 1993, it was one of the first motion picture films that discussed the matter of domestic abuse, illustrating that there is always a way to escape. Many women were beginning to speak out about domestic abuse during the ’90s. However, this film gave those who were still suffering in silence the courage to seek their own freedom and find their inner voice. In our contemporary society, viewers (hopefully) understand that abuse is never the victim’s fault and that men can also be targets of abuse. As more people understand that it is healthy to speak out about domestic violence, more support groups are forming to raise awareness about ways to safely escape, and more victims of abuse are speaking out and escaping their abusers.

Today, society understands that in order to save lives and reduce abuse, media outlets need to continually keep the conversation going about domestic violence until society breaks free from the bonds of its taboo. TED Talks, YouTube videos, movies and podcasts are all outlets for victims of abuse to share their story and find comfort in others who share similar experiences. These media resources are also places where others are able to be educated about domestic violence, so that everyone in society understands that the subject is acceptable to publicly discuss. Without films such as “This Boy’s Life” and other shows and movies about this tragic topic, women would not feel as comfortable speaking out and standing their ground. The more people are educated about domestic abuse, the more support groups and women’s shelters are created.

Watching “This Boy’s Life” takes the viewer along on the journey of finding one’s inner voice and the quest for freedom after oppression. Just as Caroline realizes at the end of the movie, “I could leave with you right now, couldn’t I?” Every victim of abuse can leave; there is always a way out.               

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