The independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois since 1871

The Daily Illini

The independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois since 1871

The Daily Illini

The independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois since 1871

The Daily Illini

The independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois since 1871

The Daily Illini

Column | ‘What’s Eating Gilbert Grape’ remains a whirlwind of emotion

Photo courtesy of IMDb
Still shot of the main cast of “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.” Columnist A. Oishii Basu looks back at the 1993 drama.

**This review contains spoilers.**

Today marks the 30th anniversary of the Oscar-nominated film “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,” directed by Lasse Hallström, who is famous for directing many of ABBA’s music videos. The movie was written by Peter Hedges, who authored the original book. 

The film is set in the fictional town of Endora, Iowa, and is about 25-year-old Gilbert Grape, the second oldest brother of the Grape family and the patriarch due to the absence of his father and eldest brother. 

Gilbert (Johnny Depp) and his sister Amy are managing their home, taking care of their younger siblings and mother, who has been in a years-long depressive episode since their father left and refuses to leave the home.

Throughout the story, Gilbert is under an insurmountable amount of stress. He works full-time as a grocer while taking care of his brother Arnie (Leonardo DiCaprio), who has a learning disability. 

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On top of financial and familial responsibility, Gilbert tries to pursue a relationship with a kindhearted new girl in town named Becky (Juliette Lewis), as lovelorn obsessive housewife Mrs. Carver (Mary Steenburgen) tails him.

While the film focuses mainly on Gilbert and his opposition to leading a simple life in Endora, he faces external pressures in the form of the eerie Mr. Carver (Kevin Tighe) constantly asking Gilbert to call his office, the corporate presences of a competing grocery store and Burger Barn encroaching on their small town. 

The intensity of these concepts of capitalism, financial stress and family are married well, and can be seen in action in a scene before Arnie’s 18th birthday party. 

In the scene, Amy has finished working tirelessly on a homemade cake when Arnie runs into it while trying to avoid a bath. She cries and pleads to Gilbert to run and buy a cake. He is forced to venture to enemy territory — to buy from the entity that is jeopardizing his job.

The film has a simplicity in dialogue, often repeating phrases to bring more breadth to them. This is found most frequently in Arnie, who has a habit of repeating phrases he hears. 

This simplicity becomes poignant throughout the film, especially in a scene where Gilbert tells Arnie that they shouldn’t leave the front porch in an effort to stop Arnie from running away. Arnie begins to repeat “We’re not going anywhere” so incessantly to the point that Gilbert drives off in frustration.

DiCaprio’s portrayal of Arnie Grape and the full breadth of his intellectual disability have been widely acclaimed as accurate and respectful while acknowledging the difficulties Gilbert, Amy and his younger sister Ellen face taking care of him. The performance earned DiCaprio his first Oscar nomination for Best Actor in a supporting role at the age of 19.

Throughout the film we are met with warm coloring that throws us into this vast, rustic Midwestern setting. Although most of the movie  was shot in Manor, Texas, the shots emphasize the flatness of the land as well as the bleakness Gilbert feels emanating from shots of empty storefronts with hand painted signs.

“What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” is a whirlwind of emotion, including themes of familial responsibility, grief and capitalism. This film will transport you to its warm Americana setting, clever shots and simple but poignant dialogue. 


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