What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993)

Note: This review is part of my contribution to a series Ruben is doing over at his site. Click the above images for more details.

I tend to enjoy portraits of small town America more than the busyness of the inner city film. However, one of the biggest obstacles with making a small town film is that such places are often portrayed as slow, languid and docile. This makes it hard to craft interesting conflict and tension. It means that most of these stories have to come up with some interesting tensions, but it also means that some of them do a terrible job at overcoming the hurdle of conflict.

Gilbert Grape (Johnny Depp) is a young man at the mercy of those around him. Most of his life is spent taking care of his troubled brother, Arnie (Leonardo DiCaprio). When he’s not doing that, he’s the only one in the family working to support his grossly obese mother, Bonnie, and two sisters. He’s even resigned when it comes to his love life, the passive recipient of the affections of a married woman he delivers groceries to.

While his passivity is a core part of his character, Gilbert Grape character lacks any real compelling conflict. Sure, he’s stuck in a bad spot in life, but he’s not someone who has any aspirations, desires or dreams. He seems content, if not complacent, with his life. While he does change as a character as the film progresses, his lack of conflict makes some of the development forced and trite, especially when the last act takes an unexpected turn.

What the film does a good job of is not making any of the people in the film simply obstacles or objects that get in Gilbert Grape’s way. They’re more than just points of tension in his life, but real character that are fleshed out to be sympathetic and identifiably in their own odd way. While it would seem easy to stereotype some of the people in this film, it always takes the high route and shows there’s more to people than is on the surface.

A prime example of this is Arnie, portrayed by a young Leonardo DiCaprio. Here, a very typical, mentally stunted young man is played as more than just another crazy kid, but an emotionally troubled and complex child, who can be both extremely vulnerable and naively cruel. DiCaprio does a fantastic job of making a complex and complicated type of character become more than just a cheap character device to get in Gilbert Grape’s way.

Bonnie Grape is also another character worth talking about. While the film seems to be exploiting her just as a spectacle and a sign of how much embarrassment and weight this family must deal with, by the end, she’s seen as a tragic and sympathetic character, stuck in a vicious cycle of life she never planned to have. And she has the ability to surprise and frighten the audience as well when trouble faces the family.

All this is to say that What’s Eating Gilbert Grape doesn’t have much of a plot, a rather ambiguous conflict, but the characters are surprising and unusual in ways we wouldn’t expect at first glance. At times, it’s a fantastic glimpse into rich characters, at other times it’s forced and contrived to get the film to a certain moment. And those moments are never as good as simply watching these characters gradually unfold.

There’s a lot that What’s Eating Gilbert Grape does fantastically, but there are these nagging moments when it wants to do something grand, overly dramatic and symbolic, and those moments require straining the plausibility of character motivation. It doesn’t ruin the film, but it gives me enough reservation to say that it’s a good film, at best, flirting with the edge of greatness.

© 2011 James Blake Ewing