What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993) Directed by Lasse Hallstrom. With Johnny Depp, Leonardo DiCaprio, Juliette Lewis, Mary Steenburgen, John C. Reilly, Darlene Cates, Crispin Glover and Kevin Tighe.
Looking at the post ‘Pirates’ box office friendly resume of Johnny Depp today, it’s easy to forget that in the twenty-something stage of his distinguished career, his roles were mostly confined to films that didn’t have mainstream appeal and featured characters that were often quite unusual and offbeat.
Adapted for the screen by Peter Hedges from his own novel of the same name and affectionately directed by Lasse Hallstrom, ‘Gilbert Grape’ is a laid back story about a laid back guy struggling to remain laid back as events in his life conspire against allowing him to be the person he needs to be. Gilbert Grape is trapped. He’s trapped because he’s the eldest of four siblings in a family that’s lost it’s father figure and in which the mother has grown so obese that she hasn’t left the house in years. On top of that, his younger brother ‘Arnie’ (DiCaprio) has autism which demands constant care meaning Gilbert has to be the sole bread winner and juggler of everyone’s needs. It’s fair to say, there’s quite a bit eating Gilbert Grape.
What lingers after seeing the film is the strong relationship between Gilbert and his brother Arnie and the quite remarkable performance from a young Leonardo DiCaprio who is practically unrecognisable from the Inception’s and Shutter Island’s of today. Gilbert’s love and sense of responsibility for Arnie, despite his constant frustration is beautiful, and it’s the thing that film mostly hinges upon. Director Hallstrom frames the frustration perfectly with dramatic photography of sunset skies that seem to taunt Gilbert as a showcase for the beauty and variation he’s missing out on. Fleshing that out is Juliette Lewis’ ‘Becky’, a nomadic young girl who wanders into town with tales of travels and adventure that strike a stark contrast to Gilbert’s dull existence. At heart, Gilbert is a simple guy with simple needs and the structure and feel of the film reflects his personality.
What’s also interesting is the attitude that develops toward the mother character, Bonnie, and the actress playing the role. This is no woman in a fat suit, Darlene Cates is a worryingly large woman and the truthfulness of her sad character is all there to be seen on-screen. In many ways, her life choices have imprisoned Gilbert and from an audience point of view, levels of sympathy might vary strongly towards her. With much to warm the heart though, ‘What’s Eating Gilbert Grape’ is a film of good intentions with some quite outstanding performances. 3.5/5