26 February 2008 | Lechuguilla
Small American towns nurture kindness and big hearts, as personified by Gilbert Grape (Johnny Depp), a twenty year old guy who heads a loving but difficult family of two younger sisters, a mentally retarded younger brother named Arnie (Leonardo DiCaprio), and their obese momma (Darlene Cates). These are humble, unpretentious common folks who do the best they can. But life in a small town in Iowa is hard, and it can be frustrating and confining. At times, you can feel ... trapped.
The film's theme is explicit. Gilbert is trapped in a vexing family. Arnie is trapped in a body with a flawed brain. Momma is trapped in an obese body. A local woman named Betty (Mary Steenburgen) is trapped in an unsatisfying marriage. A young woman named Becky (Juliette Lewis) is trapped with her grandmother in the town by an RV that has broken down while passing through. Even a grasshopper gets trapped in Arnie's mischievous hands.
Seeing good people trapped in difficult situations is poignant. The film really tugs at your heartstrings. In one sequence, momma must face gawkers as she leaves the courthouse. Her response is inspiring and majestic. Darlene Cates does a wonderful job in this role.
Gilbert and his family live in a modest house. Its interior reminds me of the grim, depressing house in the movie "Silkwood" (1983). The dinner table must be moved each meal to wherever momma is sitting. And typical family conversation centers on preparation for Arnie's birthday party, and debate over ways to cook bacon.
A friend helps Gilbert reinforce the wood floor under Gilbert's house, so that the floor won't collapse under the weight of momma. Gilbert is kind, and has a big heart. And he is very protective of Arnie who has a habit of climbing up the town's water tower.
The townsfolk are satisfied with fulfilling small dreams, like getting a job at the new burger barn, or getting an ice cream snack at the local "Dairy Dreme". Small American towns ... life is familial and loving, but it can also be confining. And this film reminds me a lot of "The Last Picture Show" (1971).
The acting in "What's Eating Gilbert Grape" is very good, as is the color cinematography, and production design. I did find the Arnie character to be a bit grating at times. The film's plot is slightly repetitive. And I don't care for the film's title. But these are minor issues.
"What's Eating Gilbert Grape" is a heartfelt story about life in a small American town, with all its kindness, big hearts, and familial love, despite the hardships. The film is worth a serious look, for its thematic depth, for its acting, and for its attention to detail in sets and production design.