U.S. Release Date: December 17, 1993
Distributor: Paramount
Director: Lasse Hallstrom
Writer: Peter Hedges
Cast: Johnny Depp, Leonardo DiCaprio
Running Time: 1 hour and 58 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (elements of mature subject matter)

Coming of Age in Iowa with Subtlety, Originality
by Scott Holleran

The 1993 movie What's Eating Gilbert Grape is composed of golden pictures and subtle performances—with signs of director Lasse Hallstrom's gentle genius. Based on the novel by Peter Hedges, who wrote the screenplay, it is thoroughly original.

Made with the same rich ingredients that Mr. Hallstrom puts into each movie (Chocolat, Casanova), fanciful characters dominate and, as the title implies, there isn't much of a plot. There's a narrative voice, Gilbert Grape's (Johnny Depp in a breakout role), a lonely, desolate place—an Iowa town called Endora—and a cast of unique individuals.

What does happen is earned. Gilbert's story flows almost imperceptibly through a series of events toward his eventual emancipation from family duty and small town drudgery. Reliable Gilbert, who works at the local market and lives in the same house where he was raised, feels trapped. He cares for his mentally retarded younger brother (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his obese mother (Darlene Cates) and he represses the emerging adult yearning to break free. This is not the Hollywood "go for it" formula; for Gilbert, merely to go is an accomplishment.

What's Eating Gilbert Grape is his small-scale, peculiar journey and the story of how he carefully, deliberately, untangles knotted family ties. His 500-pound mother hides inside the house, his best friend (John C. Reilly) is opening a fast food franchise and his helpless younger sibling climbs everything from trees to the town water tower. His life is defined by others.

That is about to change and this is where the rubber meets the miles of flat, empty road. Gilbert, acting out against the harshness of his childhood—a father who killed himself and a mother who is eating herself to death—shares the family habit of self-destruction. Having sex with another man's wife (Mary Steenburgen), he's racked with guilt and shame and, walking the line between being counted on and being taken for granted, he faces his future like he's about to pop.

Along comes benevolent Becky (Juliette Lewis) and, suddenly, Gilbert must choose how to resolve his contradictions, which collide when Becky pedals past him after her grandmother's Airstream breaks down during an annual trip through town. Basking in summer sunsets captured by photographer Sven Nykvist (The Unbearable Lightness of Being), Gilbert begins to awaken from the slumber of self-denial.

That leaves his incorrigible brother—Mr. DiCaprio in an incredibly convincing performance—without a keeper and it knocks everyone, especially Momma and voracious Mrs. Carver, whose husband (Kevin Tighe) may or may not know about his wife's betrayal, into a tizzy. Water, fire, sunlight—these basic elements emphasize a young man drowning in unchosen obligations, burning with desire and yearning to live in the light.

One is left with an entirely embellished depiction of a wounded person's spiritual rebirth. Both stranger and sweeter than another unforgettable tale of youthful Midwestern abandon—Peter Yates's Breaking Away—and generously layered with moments of laughter, Lasse Hallstrom's What's Eating Gilbert Grape is an early dramatization of his credo that happiness is paramount.

Buy on DVD
DVD Notes
A new special collector's edition of What's Eating Gilbert Grape includes extras and a commentary. While DVD makers are under an unofficial dictate to restrict features to no longer than ten minutes, three short features are affectionately, thoughtfully created.

The Characters of Gilbert Grape, The Voice of Gilbert Grape (which ends abruptly) and Why We Love Gilbert Grape include brief cast and crew interviews with writer Peter Hedges, director Lasse Hallstrom, and actors Depp, Lewis, Cates and Steenburgen, among others (Mr. DiCaprio is absent except in older footage). Cates, who played Momma, recalls that friends were impressed that she had Johnny Depp and Leonardo DiCaprio hanging on her while she could not wait to get DiCaprio as the filthy-faced boy off her lap.

The movie is worth the $20 retail price tag, though scene selection titles are easier to read on the older disc and the box is empty besides the disc—minus even a table of contents. Audio commentary by Hedges and Mr. Hallstrom is a workmanlike exchange between insiders. Improvements include better sound and picture quality and a gallery of photographs.

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