What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? is a moving, human film. Director Lasse Hallström weaves a story that captures both the viewer’s attention and the subtle emotional intricacies that are involved in our relationships with our families, neighbors, friends and loved ones. Johnny Depp stars as Gilbert Grape, a young man who works at a dead-end job in a dead-end town at a small grocery store that’s rapidly losing business to its bigger competitor. There are a lot of things eating away at Gilbert: never having left his tiny Iowa hometown, his brother, Arnie (played by Leonardo DiCaprio), who is disabled and not able to take care of himself, and his mother, who, depressed after the suicide of her husband, gained so much weight that she can barely move, and who has not left the house in seven years.
Johnny Depp is at his best as Gilbert; it’s certainly one of his meatier roles. In Gilbert, we see the frustrations that a person who takes care of a sibling with a disability might experience, along with a person who loves his family more than anything. We see Gilbert’s mixed feelings about his mother: as she leaves the sheriff’s office, leaning on her cane for support and being gawked at and even photographed by onlookers, Gilbert’s face reflects his desire to be protective of her struggling against his shame over her immense weight. But perhaps the one who shines the most in the film is Leonardo DiCaprio. His role as Arnie, the mentally disabled brother of Gilbert, shows DiCaprio’s raw talent as an actor. DiCaprio makes Arnie more than just a character in a movie; he turns him into a real person. This is the charm of What’s Eating Gilbert Grape: it could easily be a true story.
At times, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape can be difficult to watch, much as the painful times in our lives can be difficult to go through. But the film ends on a satisfying and promising note for both the characters and the audience, with the message that life goes on, and there can be more to it than this.