What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?

Year: 1993
Director: Lasse Hallström
Starring: Johnny Depp, Leonardo DiCaprio, Juliette Lewis
Written by Amber Dainty

With the 2016 Oscars ceremony out of the way and Leonardo DiCaprio finally taking home a golden statue thanks to his moving performance in ‘The Revenant’, I thought it would be fun to re-watch the picture which earned him his first Oscar nomination: ‘What’s Eating Gilbert Grape’. I’ve seen the film many times before, and it’s in my top 5 favourite films of all time, so you could call me biased. I don’t care – you should still stop what you’re doing and watch this film, and here’s why.

So, what is eating Gilbert Grape? A hell of a lot, actually. The quirky Grape family comprises of an obese matriarch who never leaves the house, a young boy named Arnie with a developmental disability (DiCaprio), two sisters, and older brother Gilbert (Depp), who takes on the responsibility of being both breadwinner and carer, all while attempting to patch up the remains of the family home. The narrative forms around Arnie’s 18th birthday, and the events surrounding this important landmark celebration. Set in a small town in Iowa, ‘Gilbert Grape’ paints a vivid picture of growing up in a Midwestern sleepy town where nothing ever changes; Gilbert goes to work every day; Arnie climbs the water tower every day; their mother never leaves the house. ‘Gilbert Grape’ succeeds in capturing the feeling of being trapped in a town which certainly does not inspire or enthral. You could argue that in terms of narrative, not a lot actually happens in the film, and this puts a lot of people off – but it shouldn’t.

In fact, you should watch it just for the acting performances alone. DiCaprio in particular is so good he’s almost difficult to watch, as he plays a young boy with a disability who struggles with his language, emotions, and flaws. DiCaprio was still a teen when he filmed ‘Gilbert Grape’, yet the star quality is evident even at such a young age – he’s truly believable and likeable, and he was definitely robbed of his supporting actor Oscar here. Yet, I would argue that his performance is only so moving due to his on screen chemistry with Depp; it’s honestly one of the most perfectly acted on-screen relationships I’ve come across and they convey a very authentic familial love. Moreover, Darlene Cates’ matriarch is very upsetting to watch; she is too scared to leave the house and when she does she is mocked – it’s a difficult scene to watch and one that is acted mesmerisingly. 

The cinematography of the film is also worth noting as it brings to light the feelings of being trapped in this small town, in this life. Sparse, brown landscapes lack colour and excitement, yet perfectly capture the monotony of Gilbert’s life. In fact, the film highlights some major issues for small town life, not least due to the references to infringing capitalism; Gilbert works at a local grocery store which is constantly losing its business to a larger, out of town megastore. Additionally, attitudes towards disability and mental illness are questioned as we see characters interact with Arnie in different ways, and his mother’s fear of going outside due to her size. 

Sadly, despite all the good stuff going for it, ‘Gilbert Grape’ is also desperately predictable and a movie that’s not out of the ordinary. You can see the love story between Becky and Gilbert coming a mile off, from the minute she steps on screen in her big white hat. Moreover, the ending, as cathartic as it is, is also unremarkable. Despite this, I have no doubts that the charm of ‘What’s Eating Gilbert Grape’ outweighs the cons. It’s a genuine, heart-warming story with believable, well-acted characters. Go on, give it a watch. 

Amber’s rating: 8.8 out of 10
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