“I want Momma to take aerobics classes. I want Ellen to grow up. I want a new brain for Arnie. I want…”
Looking back at Leonardo DiCaprio’s filmography I’m constantly reminded what a great actor he is. In What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, he plays a seventeen year old mentally ill kid in such a natural way that if I didn’t know this was Leo I would’ve believed the actor playing Arnie was really mentally ill. This is probably one of his standout performances and is one of the highlights of this emotionally gripping family drama. However he is just a supporting character in this film as the title character is played by Johnny Depp, Arnie’s older brother who is always taking care of him and the rest of the family. Gilbert’s father has abandoned them and ever since he has been the male role model for the family in the small community where they live. He not only takes care of Arnie, he also has to provide for the family by working in a small local supermarket. He is ashamed of his obese mother (Darlene Cates), who simply stopped caring about her beautiful body after her husband abandoned her. Gilbert also has two sisters who help out with the family chores, Amy (Laura Harrington) and Ellen (Mary Kate Schellhardt). The responsibility Gilbert feels towards his family has taken its toll on him and explains why he seems to be half asleep all the time. He has no time for accomplishing any personal goals or dreams and spends his few free minutes with his local friends, Tucker (John C. Reilly) and Bobby (Crispin Glover). Things take an unexpected turn when Becky (Juliette Lewis) arrives in town and the two form a special bond together. What’s Eating Gilbert Grape is an emotionally gripping family drama that works thanks to the strong performances from the cast and a fantastically well written script by Peter Hedges. The film avoids feeling cliche or melodramatic and I found it to be an honest story. Lasse Hallstrom has been accused of being overly melodramatic at times, but I think that the director avoided much of those moments here thanks in most part to a well written script.
Leonardo DiCaprio gives the best performance of the film, but Johnny Depp also delivers in a very subtle way. His character doesn’t seem to say much, but the way he simply moves and speaks says a lot about him. He knows he isn’t getting anywhere in life and feels stuck in this small town, but at the same time he has responsibilities and knows that his family relies on him to survive. He is trapped in a prison he can’t get out of. He cares deeply for his family, but at the same time he resents them and it seems they have become a burden for him. The way he approaches the character is fascinating because he doesn’t have to say or do anything for us to understand how he feels. We can easily identify and sympathize for his character. The chemistry he shares with Lewis is also strong. She is in some ways the opposite of him. She is free spirited and has travelled across several states. She doesn’t have many responsibilities, and the two end up complementing each other quite well. Their relationship might not be the central theme of the movie, but it does lighten up the mood a bit. Reilly is always funny on screen and despite playing a more serious character he still delivers his usual quirky silliness to the role. All these small relationships are the central theme of the movie and the brotherhood between Depp and DiCaprio stands out above them all. I enjoyed this family drama and I’m glad I finally got a chance to watch it.