Rites Of Passage

Every male American writer who ever grappled with the theme of adolescence owes a debt to "Huckleberry Finn." The vernacular poetry of Huck's voice is the source that flows through Salinger's "The Catcher in the Rye" and, consciously or not, must have informed Tobias Wolff when he sat down to record his own memoir of coming of age in the 1950s, "This Boy's Life." Written a hundred years apart, Wolffs and Twain's books are nonetheless haunted by similar demons: violent, abusive father figures, the search for identity, the push-pull American battle between respectability and wildness.

It's curious that a new Disney version of The Adventures of Huck Finn should appear simultaneously with three other films about the agonies of adolescence: Michael Caton-Jones's stunning adaptation of Wolff's book, Marshall Herskovitz's Jack the Bear, which recounts a 12-year-old's rite of passage in Oakland, circa 1972, and the French-Canadian Leolo a wildly personal and daring journey into a tormented 12-year-old's psyche. Following Mark Twain's lead, all four rely on a first-person narrator to navigate the rapids of turbulent boyhood memory, the traumas of fractured family. It's as if the inchoate emotions of adolescence can be wrestled under control only in the relative safety of the past tense. In these movies, growing up is always, absurd, and always hard to do.

The beauty of This Boy's Life is in the details: this meticulously observed story gets the look of the late '50s down pat and, more important, captures the dissonance between the era's ideals of nuclear-family life and the painfully deracinated reality of young Toby Wolff's life. We first see our teenage hero (the astonishingly talented Leonardo DiCaprio) heading for Utah with his giddily optimistic mother, Caroline (Ellen Barkin), who's fleeing an abusive boyfriend in Florida. But their fantasies of striking it rich in uranium prove a mirage; the boyfriend tracks them down, and once again they flee, catching a bus to Seattle only because it leaves before the one to Phoenix.

Reality catches up with them in the Northwest, when Caroline meets Dwight (Robert De Niro), a hearty, nattily dressed suitor who lives with his three children in the backwater burg of Concrete. Desperate for stability, Caroline marries him, hoping that family life will tame her rebellious son, who's exhibiting the classic signs of juvenile delinquency. But behind Dwight's awkward bonhomie lies an authoritarian, childish bully. He instinctively senses Toby as a rival for Caroline's affection and proceeds to make the boy's life hell. Dwight is a scary guy, pumped up with a particularly '50s style of know-nothing macho that turns violent with drink, but he's nearly as pathetic as he is hateful. De Niro, always at his best in volatile parts, finds a kind of monstrous comedy in the role.

Toby hates his stepfather, but nothing in this film is that simple: he can also see himself becoming Dwight. Smart and selfdestructive, Toby is a boy divided against himself-he has dreams of a prep-school future like his long-separated Princetonian brother (in real life writer Geoffrey Wolff), but he can't stay out of trouble: he wants to be cool like the dead-end working-class kids he hangs out with, but he's terrified of getting trapped in Concrete. "This Boy's -Life" isn't a polemic, but it offers a biting critique of the crippling codes of American masculinity, which honor false swagger and the rule of the fist. The only other boy who understands Toby is the town "sissy," Arthur (marvelously played by Jonah Blechman), his resilient soul mate in alienation. Scottish director CatonJones ("Scandal," "Doc Hollywood") and screenwriter Robert Getchell tell Wolff's story with something approaching perfect pitch. This is well-crafted Hollywood filmmaking in full bloom-moving, smart and made with passion.

The widowed father in "Jack the Bear," John Leary (Danny DeVito), has trouble with booze, too (a motif in all these movies), but he's basically a Swell Guy, if selfdestructive. Leary is the "Monster of Ceremonies" on a late-night Oakland horror show, struggling to raise his children on his own. But as our 12-year-old narrator Jack (Robert Steinmiller Jr.) tells us, that fateful summer he would discover "that monsters are real." The monster, it turns out, is an absurdly sinister neoNazi neighbor the boys call Norman the Zombie (Gary Sinise), who hates John and kidnaps his 3-year-old son. This outburst of arbitrary melodrama completely derails "Jack the Bear," which is essentially the simple story of a boy grappling with the death of his mother. Director Herskovitz ("thirtysomething") clearly wants to make something "sensitive," but he doesn't trust his material. He falls back on TV-style sentimentality, hoked-up drama and an overreliance on Jack's too precocious narration to explain The Meaning of It All. What pathos it achieves (and that's about all it has on its mind) is due to the good work of DeVito and Steinmiller. Written by Steven Zaillian from a Dan McCall novel, "Jack the Bear" is as fuzzy as " This Boy's Life" is clear-eyed. It seems more interested in pitying its characters than illuminating them.

" Leolo" is something richer, fiercer and more strange. Jean-Claude Lauzon's semi-autobiographical memory film is a work of scabrous poetry, a scathing depiction of a Montreal childhood in a working-class family that redefines dysfunctional. Defiantly nonmainstream, it dips in and out of fantasy (the 12-year-old French-Canadian hero, Leo, insists he's really an Italian named Leolo, the son of a sperm-laden imported tomato!), ignores conventional narrative and is filled with raunch, scatology, bestiality and adolescent sexuality. This is not a movie for those who like their art polite and easy to digest. But under its sometimes shocking and darkly funny surface runs a deep tide of feeling: there are scenes here that can break your heart, but you never see them coming.

"Leolo" is Lauzon's portrait of the artist as a young dreamer. To escape the literal insanity of his family, the squalor of his Montreal slum, Leolo (Maxime Collin) flees into his imagination. "Because I dream I'm not crazy," he intones, his internalized version of Huck's lighting out for the territory. We're not always sure what's real and what's fantasy; does he really try to murder his grandfather with a noose? Lauzon is an emotional daredevil, but he's got the technique to carry off his riskiest flights of fancy: the grotesqueness of his images is matched by their beauty. Especially moving is the relationship between Leolo and his brother, who becomes a bodybuilder after he's beaten up by a local bully but can't expunge the fear that makes him put on mountains ofmuscle. Only at the end does "Leolo" falter: logic points to Leolo's survival, his eventual blossoming into a writer, but the cryptic conclusion leaves him literally suspended in madness (Lauzon reportedly didn't have the funds to shoot the ending he wanted). It's a shame, but hardly fatal: at its heady best, "Leolo" transforms the terrors and desires of childhood into exhilarating, dangerous images.

I wish I could report that "The Adventures of Huck Finn," written and directed by newcomer Stephen Sommers, did justice to its great source, but though it has some charming moments, an engaging performance by 12-year-old Elijah Wood as Huck and flashes of the Twain wit, it's a pale shadow of the original. While remaining reasonably faithful to the events of Twain's novel, Sommers has reconceived it as a slam-bang action movie with an antislavery message. (Courtney Vance plays runaway slave Jim.) Who is this movie for? The violence is much too intense for small children and the staging too archly theatrical for adults. Sommers never lets the story open up and breathe: he catches Huck's bravado but loses his soul. Ten-year-old boys may like it; the rest of us can find Huck's restless spirit alive and well (if radically transformed) in "This Boy's Life" and "Leolo." Or in the library.