Gilbert Grape (Johnny Depp) has been dealt a tough hand in life. Livingly in a small Midwestern town, Gilbert is responsible for his younger siblings, including his mentally-disabled younger brother Arnie (Leonardo DiCaprio), and he has to care for his morbidly obese mother (Darlene Cates). Making ends meet by working in the local grocery store, Gilbert enjoys a secret affair with married older woman Betty Carver (Mary Steenburgen). When he meets carefree Becky (Juliette Lewis), Gilbert realises that he’s letting his life pass him by rather than living it.
‘What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?’ was released in 1993 and it’s looked back on fondly as a classic, despite not performing particularly strongly at the box office. A coming-of-age tale, the film focuses on Gilbert and his attempts to hold his family together, a burden he never asked for and doesn’t particularly want. His younger brother Arnie is forever getting into trouble and he can’t motivate his obese mother to move from the sofa. Over the course of the film, we see Gilbert open his eyes to a world beyond his family thanks to the introduction of Becky, and he stops becoming a passenger in his own life and begins to formulate his own hopes and dreams.
You can understand how Gilbert has fallen into the role of the family patriarch. In the absence of a father, and with a mother who loves her children but can’t deal with her own issues, he’s left with no choice. His sisters resent him and while he clearly loves Arnie, he grows increasingly frustrated by how difficult he is to look after. The only release he gets is through his affair with Betty and even that takes place passively from his perspective. It’s clear that Betty has picked him out to escape her own mundane life but Gilbert isn’t particularly into their liaisons.
While ‘What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?’ is superbly acted, it’s not the most exciting of films. The first hour moves at a glacial pace, establishing the family and the people of the town but giving nothing much in the way of action. That changes somewhat in the second half as Gilbert starts to break free from the restraints he’s used to living in but it’s still not exactly gripping stuff. The ending, while working very well as a metaphor, makes little logical sense so the payoff you’re hoping for doesn’t even arrive after nearly two hours.
The hook here is the acting. It’s an early role for Johnny Depp and he’s reliably strong as Gilbert. Leonardo DiCaprio completely steals the show, and he picked up his first Oscar nomination, as Arnie. It’s hard to imagine he would be cast in such a role now given our tendency as a society to favour being PC above all, but it’s a good example of an actor stepping out of their comfort zone and convincing as a character that’s absolutely nothing like them. Juliette Lewis gives a sweet turn as Becky too, and in the 90s she really was in pretty much everything as her star rocketed.
‘What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?’ is a solid family drama with a coming-of-age focus but it could have done with a little more plot. As it stands, the film is very well acted with an enviable cast and it’s enjoyable enough. Having never seen it until now, nearly 30 years on, I had ridiculously high hopes given how fondly critics and fans talk about it, but honestly, I was a little disappointed.
Cast: Johnny Depp, Leonardo DiCaprio, Juliette Lewis, Mary Steenburgen, Darlene Cates, Kevin Tighe, John C. Reilly Director: Lasse Hallström Writer: Peter Hedges Certificate: 12 Duration: 117 mins Released by: Fabulous Films Release date: 6th September 2021 Buy ‘What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?’ now