Rapid Response: What’s Eating Gilbert Grape

I recently wrote a story on a film series at the IU Cinema on Disability Awareness Films as part of Indiana’s Disability Awareness Month that you can read here, and although the interviews I did drastically changed the way I thought about disabilities, I wondered if a movie, especially tonight’s screening of “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,” could do the same.

The movie is sweet and saccharine with some melodrama that surprisingly never steps too far, but when you consider all it does wonderfully in depicting disabilities as a natural part of everyday life, you begin to realize how special the film is.

The story is of a family of four young adults living and caring with their morbidly obese mother in a small town. Gilbert Grape (Johnny Depp) does a lot of work around the house and around town and is also the primary care giver for his autistic younger brother Arnie (Leonardo DiCaprio).

The beauty of the story in relation to disabilities is that the handicapped individuals are hardly one-dimensional figures made to pose problems or melodrama for the able bodied people. Both the mother and Arnie are endearing, likeable, emotional, display growth and are not defined by their disabilities. For instance, the mother’s disability is not really obesity but grief over the death of her husband.

The film treats the problems of disabled people as just another complication in a normal day, and we see depth in that this is really a story of being stuck and being judged. Gilbert is stuck inside his hometown, the mother is trapped in her home, Arnie is trapped within his own mind, Gilbert’s new-found girlfriend Becky is literally stuck in this town in the middle of nowhere, and a local married woman having an affair with Gilbert is first stuck in a dysfunctional family and is later surrounded by accusations of her killing her husband.

“Gilbert Grape” is perhaps little seen today but well heard of because it happens to be a remarkable time capsule with a million now famous actors doing things radically different from what they’re doing today. Johnny Depp, Leonardo DiCaprio, Juliette Lewis, Mary Steenburgen, John C. Reiley and Crispin Glover all have early, major roles, and just about all of them are wonderful.

You could talk for hours about how good Leo is as someone with autism. He was rightfully nominated for an Oscar, but you watch him act and can hardly see the actor he is today, let alone would be within just years of that performance as a teen heartthrob. He’s so natural, as if he was an actual autistic actor, and his portrayal is considered remarkably accurate.

This is also a great everyman performance for Johnny Depp. It’s very understated and reserved, and yet he displays some touching range and emotion. I wonder whatever happened to that actor.

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