This is the first in a series of reviews of classic films by Mina Kirkova
Centred on the life and family of Gilbert Grape (Johnny Depp), this is a film about the important things in life and how people tackle the difficulties that life presents them with. A film about travelling a long distance, without actually going anywhere, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape shows multiple ways of living and all the ways in which not living life to the fullest will get you nowhere. The character of Gilbert Grape starts and ends the film with a framing voiceover in which he talks about his life. Simple words and simple sentences, this voiceover almost has you believe that Gilbert’s life is actually a pretty straightforward and easy one. This is, of course, not the case, and soon enough the viewer is presented in a subtle and patient way with “what’s eating Gilbert Grape”. He introduces the small town of Endora and states that there’s nothing much that could ever happen in a town like this. The film goes on to show us that the little things are actually the big things, and that a small town can carry lots of stories in its heart. Endora is a place where most people know each other and the opening of a fast food chain restaurant seems to be a big event. Surrounded by people he loves and cares about, Gilbert Grape is part of this small town holiday, whilst at the same time he isn’t.
Playing Arnie, the autistic brother of the protagonist, Leonardo DiCaprio’s acting is marvellous; he got his first (widely discussed) Oscar nomination for this particular film. Gilbert takes care of Arnie on behalf of his overweight mother, who suffers from severe depression, having been previously abandoned by her husband. Arnie’s disability combined with kindness are beautifully expressed through his constant desire to climb the town’s water tower until he goes as high as he can possibly get. Arnie’s character is the deep breath of honesty in the Grape family and he is everybody’s weakness. Gilbert, his sisters, and their mother all go to their limits when it comes to Arnie and he loves them sincerely for everything they do for him. The film slowly builds up to Arnie’s eighteenth birthday – a more than happy day for his friends and family, as he was not expected to live to more than ten years old. This day of celebration holds many emotions and implications for the Grape family, but it seems to end on a note of acceptance and understanding. Its exploration of the difficult issues surrounding taking care of a child with a disability, and having to grow up without a father figure for guidance, is one of the most captivating facets of “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape”. This is a film that doesn’t quite have a catch, but it has something bigger, something that is definitely not going to let you go until the end of the film – the portrayal of the warmth of human relationships.
Although most of the time consumed by his love and dedication to his family, Gilbert is touched by romantic love when he least expects it. As important emotions in relationships go, love is probably number one on the list, and it is given the attention it needs in this story too. Gilbert’s odd, but instant connection with travelling girl Becky confuses him and makes him question the things that he has valued most in life until he met her. The extent to which his intuition makes him act in the interest of love give a delightful outline to his love for Becky. Gilbert seems to get from Becky what he can’t get anywhere else, and happiness naturally comes hand in hand with the revelation that she is willing to be kind and understanding with the family that he more or less takes care of.
Going through so much, Johnny Depp’s Gilbert comes to terms with what life has to offer, along with the fact that these things are not often served on a silver platter. Gilbert Grape has to accept the people he loves through family ties for who they are, and to understand why is it that he loves them, so that he can be happy with the person that he chooses to love. He makes a journey in this film and it’s as beautiful and sad as it is through and through fulfilling – for Gilbert and for Hallstrom’s audience.
What’s Eating Gilbert Grape is a classics of recent film history, simple, but thought-provoking, exemplifying how small things make a world of a difference to everyone. It is one of those films that do not have complicated, twisting plot, but in it there’s something pleasing for all of the senses. It leaves the spectator smiling. The film was instantly accepted by critics for the simple pleasures it gives to the viewer. Such a movie is always as topical as it was when it first came out. It does not go out of date and changing perspectives do not alter the emotional response it inevitably provokes. You should give Gilbert Grape another watch.