No matter how many times I return to it, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape never fails to hit me right in the gut with a range of different emotions.
Right from the beginning, the film is brimming with the tenderness which allows it to retain its brilliance viewing after viewing – from Johnny Depp’s portrayal of Gilbert Grape, a young man burdened with the task of caring for his morbidly obese and reclusive mother Bonnie (Darlene Cates) and his younger, mentally impaired, brother Arnie (Leonardo DiCaprio) whilst simultaneously trying to maintain some quality of life in a small town threatened by mega food stores etc.
Set in the fictional town of Endora, the plot centres around Gilbert’s struggle to live his own life while under constraints set by his own sense of family duty since his father’s abandonment of them. This becomes even more complicated by the arrival of love interest Becky (Juliette Lewis), a free spirited girl who is stopping through Endora until her camper van is repaired. As the film progresses, Gilbert’s many frustrations become abundantly clear – with Arnie’s repeated attempts to climb the town’s water tower ultimately resulting in his arrest, and his mother being ridiculed by the townspeople when she decides to leave the house [after being reclusive for seven years] to get him from the police station.
As a protagonist; Gilbert is a character you can empathise with on multiple levels throughout the film, such as the guilt he feels when his boss discovers him buying a birthday cake for Arnie from the very supermarket that threatens his business. But at the same time, there are points throughout the story where you can’t help but feel animosity towards him regardless of the empathy you feel – when he strikes Arnie out of frustration for his misbehavior for example, a moment where on one hand you feel similarly frustrated with him, but on the other seeing Arnie be hurt by the one who has sworn to protect him is almost sickening to watch.
Bonnie’s death itself is sudden (and, to be honest, it’s quite expected given her weight and inferred poor physical health), but because it’s viewed in comparison with the rest of Gilbert’s life, it is extremely emotional – especially given Arnie’s belief she is only sleeping. It’s kind of like a live action Lion King reenactment – Arnie takes on the Simba role as he unknowingly talks to his dead mother. Alongside Becky’s departure, it’s heart-wrenching.
All in all, the film is beautiful, right down to the finish of Gilbert’s narrative relating how his sisters went on to live to their own lives, in new towns and new schools. The feeling of happiness I get from the concluding scene in which Gilbert and Arnie flag down Becky’s trailer and climb inside to join her on the road never ceases, if anything it increases every time I watch the film.