What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993)

Directed by Lasse Hallström

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I’m not sure how to talk about this film, which is weird, because it’s not so complex, revolutionary or challenging.  It’s a nice story with humble aspirations and honest, vulnerable characters.  What’s Eating Gilbert Grape never tries to do much, and maybe that’s why at the end it never feels as though it gets very far.  Framed with the main character’s narration, we establish that Gilbert (Johnny Depp) is recalling old events, a time when things were simpler and yet more fragile.  It sets the same type of tone as in other coming of age stories, like Stand By Me or any number of John Hughes teen comedies.

But Gilbert is too old for this.  He’s no longer a boy, yet he has so much to learn.  Gilbert lives a dutiful life in the tiny Endora, Iowa, a town for which he expresses disdain but to which he remains firmly attached.  He lives at home with an obese mother (Darlene Cates), two sisters (Laura Harrington, Mary Kate Schellhardt) and a mentally disabled brother, Arnie (Leonardo DiCaprio).  He must keep a watchful eye on Arnie while working at the grocery store, dealing with the end of a The Last Picture Show-esque affair with a jaded housewife (Mary Steenburgen) and falling in love with a free spirit, Becky (Juliette Lewis).

There is a lot going on in Gilbert Grape, but at the center of it, like the eye of the storm, is Gilbert himself.  He’s quiet, often expressionless, and his actions don’t always vibe with each other.  On one hand he conducts an affair with Betty Carver (Steenburgen) and openly harbors a grudge against his mother (“she’s a whale”), yet we also see him as a deeply empathetic, caring young man.  He does so much for Arnie, who requires near around the clock attention, and despite any feelings of loathing, he and his sisters do just as much for their immobile mother.

Because Gilbert is a bit of an enigma, so is the movie.  I really love this movie, but it also feels like so little happens.  The story opens with Gilbert and Arnie watching as the large camper vans make their yearly trek through Endora, and it ends in the same exact spot, a year later.  Gilbert tells us that he wishes he could just pass through like the campers, and at the end he insists that he now feels free to go anywhere he chooses.

So that’s the story, Gilbert dealing with a number of stresses and restrictions before breaking free and hitting the open road.  The film empathizes with Gilbert’s youthful idealism, like in every small town story, but it similarly enjoys the details of small-town life in Endora, and I think that’s why I like this film so much.

Really, I just love films set in small towns, particularly one as insular as this, where a new arrival or two represent seismic shifts, people still living can graduate to folklore and where the eventual catharsis often leads to the decision to hit the road.

Even as Gilbert wants to leave Endora, I find so much to be appealing about his hometown.  There is a certain spirit, brought to life by his two friends, Tucker and Bobby (John C. Reilly, Crispin Glover), as well as by the wise kindness of people (like Gilbert’s boss or the police who must put up with Arnie’s misbehavior) who don’t get much to say but whose expressions do all the talking.

This is a reassuring story, with mostly happy people who surround our slightly unhappy main character.  Tucker expresses unbridled joy at the idea of working for a McDonalds-like “Burger Barn” restaurant should it arrive in Endora pre-manufactured, and Bobby drives around in a hearse looking for dead people so that he might stay in business (fortunately for him, two people die over the course of the film).

Beyond that, people just kind of seem happy in Endora, whether because of blissful ignorance or a wisdom Gilbert hasn’t yet found.  The only other unhappy person, really, is Betty Carver, the housewife with whom Gilbert has been carrying on a listless affair for quite sometime.  We never see him enjoy their encounters, but it’s clear that this has been going on for sometime.  You can picture Betty and Gilbert meeting like two lonely ships in the night, the only people in Endora for whom the quaint lifestyle is not enough.

As the individual storylines build, Gilbert is pushed more and more to his breaking point.  He’s tired but weighted by family obligations.  When he meets Becky, the young woman passing through with her grandmother in one of those camper vans, he starts to wake up a little.  Maybe he’s only attracted to her because she’s not a local, but either way he falls quickly for the restless spirit who admires him just as much in return.  Gilbert’s brief romance with Becky interferes with his family duties, eventually only making matters worse.  It’s a type of conflict that should be easily avoidable were Gilbert to maintain some practicality, but Gilbert Grape is a young man with his head in the clouds, so he gets lost in the romance at times he can ill-afford to leave the ground.

Things work out, of course, and there are satisfying resolutions to go around.  What’s Eating Gilbert Grape succeeds because of the small moments, the care put into the characters surrounding the formal narrative and because it’s got one hell of a cast.  This is a sincere, heart on its sleeve kind of movie that works.

Up Next:The Time Machine (1960), Ballast (2008), Cronos (1993)

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