Directed by: Lasse Hallström | 118 minutes | drama, comedy, romance | Actors: Johnny Depp, Leonardo DiCaprio, Juliette Lewis, Mary Steenburgen, Darlene Cates, Laura Harrington, Mary Kate Schellhardt, Kevin Tighe, John C. Reilly, Crispin Glover
Some film buffs know Lasse Hallström mainly as the director of very sweet films like ‘Chocolat’ (2000), ‘The Cider House Rules’ (1999) and ‘The Shipping News’ (2001), but there was once a time when the Swedish director made a very different kind of cinema. Movies straight from the heart, sincere and pure. That was mainly before Hollywood started pulling at him, with Mitt Liv Som Hund (“My Life As A Dog” (1985)) as the absolute highlight. “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” is still quite in line with Hallström’s earlier work. The film exudes a somewhat surreal atmosphere due to the striking characters that pass in review. The beautiful soundtrack and the photography also make an important contribution to this beautiful film.
Endura is such a rippling American country town as there are so many. It seems as if nothing ever happens, but appearances are deceptive. Take the Grape family for example. There is everything going on there. Eldest son Gilbert (Johnny Depp) has taken the place of his father, who committed suicide in the basement several years ago. His younger brother Arnie (Leonardo DiCaprio) is mentally handicapped and from time to time quite a burden to Gilbert, who bears all the responsibility after his father’s departure. Eldest sister Amy has taken on the role of mother of the family, as the 250-kilogram Bonnie Grape is confined to bed due to her excessive weight and hasn’t left home for seven years. And then there is teenage sister Ellen who is quite obstructive every now and then. Gilbert’s life is turned upside down when he meets the girl Becky (Juliette Lewis), who ends up stranded with her grandmother in Endura during the annual trailer trip. This meeting is a welcome change in the not so simple life of Gilbert Grape.
The film, based on the book of the same name by author Peter Hedges (he also wrote the screenplay) is a beautiful, moving story about everyday things. The cast is truly excellent, with a formidable Leonardo DiCaprio leading the way. At the time of this film he was only nineteen years old, but he made such an impression as the mentally handicapped Arnie Grape that he received an Oscar nomination. That the coveted statue eventually went to Tommy Lee Jones for his role in “The Fugitive” (1993) was perhaps a shame, but Leo’s name was certainly established in Hollywood.
The other actors, with Johnny Depp as the dreamy title hero and Mary Steenburgen as the horny neighbor in the lead, are also in great shape. Depp is of course used to playing outsiders (just before this film he made ‘Bennie & Joon’ (1993) and ‘Edward Scissorhands’ (1990)), and gives his character Gilbert Grape a meekness that covers the entire film like a blanket. . Of course, as a viewer, you can’t ignore Darlene Cates, the obese lady who plays mother Bonnie Grape. The scene where she leaves the police station and everyone on the street is staring at her is so poignant that even the viewer does not feel at ease watching it. The trick, however, is to portray Bonnie and Arnie Grape in such a way that you view them with sympathy instead of pity. And Hallström succeeded very well in this film.
Movies like “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” are not easy to summarize. But often films that fall into that category are very good. They show everyday life, carefully observed, the viewer gets to know the character bit by bit, as it were, and perhaps thereby also discovers a hidden side of himself. The fact that Hallström manages to combine these qualities with comedy, romance and even melodrama makes “What”s Eating Gilbert Grape” a sublime spectacle.