Being the head of household and primary breadwinner can be an incredibly stressful situation to be in. It’s difficult enough for those who make the choice to raise children, but for Gilbert Grape (Johnny Depp), the titular character in this touching drama, the stress of taking care of his family is compounded by the fact that he never signed up for that role, but rather had it thrust upon him after the suicide of his father. Though young and intelligent, Gilbert’s opportunities are severely limited, as he shoulders the responsibility of providing for his family. With the help of his sister Amy (Laura Harrington), who (like Gilbert) works full-time, Gilbert provides for his younger sister Ellen (Mary Kate Schellhardt), his autistic brother, Arnie (Leonardo DiCaprio), and their housebound mother, Bonnie (Darlene Cates). Based on the novel by Peter Hedges, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape is a story of what happens when the “strong, silent type” has had enough and begins to come apart at the seams.
Gilbert lives in a constant state of dissatisfaction, frustration, and perpetual obligation, with no one to confide in, with Amy always being overworked and frazzled, Arnie unable to communicate at such an emotional level, his mother more interested in eating and watching television than talking about his feelings, and Ellen, deeply ashamed of the family as a whole. Gilbert’s only outlet is his affair with Betty Carver (Mary Steenburgen), a married mother of two. But change, and real romance, come into Gilbert’s life in the form of the kind, down-to-earth, and single, Becky (Juliette Lewis), a young woman who forces Gilbert to finally deal with his pent-up anger and ask himself what he wants for a change.
Gilbert has to confront his relationship with Arnie, whom he loves but resents, due to the attention he requires, his mother, whom he loves but is ashamed of, due to her size and the financial burden she places on him and Amy, and Ellen, who is entering puberty and wants to live her life untethered to the demands of their family. What’s Eating Gilbert Grape gives the audience a glimpse of the discrimination that Gilbert shields his brother from, the combination of depression and morbid obesity, as well as limited mobility and societal fatphobia, which shape his mother’s life, and the thankless labour of his sister, Amy, who became a surrogate mother just as Gilbert became surrogate father to a family who needs him far too much.
The performances in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape are stellar, most notably from Cates (who’d had no previous acting experience), whose own battle with weight led sincerity to her character. Though the film didn’t do enough to highlight Amy’s burden as homemaker, and consistently portrayed Ellen’s desire for stability as selfish, not to mention the pesky issue of casting the neurotypical DiCaprio as a developmentally delayed young person (a la The Other Sister), What’s Eating Gilbert Grape shines in the eloquence with which the cast tells this ordinary story of an ordinary small town family with their own unique set of trials and tribulations. This story about the weight of small, every day sacrifices made to keep the family intact is an audience favourite nearly 25 years after its release because it’s never failed to be moving.
I give this one 4 stars.