“You can tell the idyllic nature of a family by the upkeep of its picnic table. Ours is its own indictment. We are splintering and peeling. We rot.” This is how author Peter Hedges’ character, Gilbert, describes his family in the 1991 coming-of-age novel, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. The story follows a 24-year-old man who is faced with the emotional and financial hardship of assuming care for his family after his father commits suicide.
Adapted on screen in 1993 by director Lasse Hallström (The Cider House Rules, Chocolat) alongside Hedges as screenwriter, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape has become a maverick in its raw, emotional representation of disabilities and marginalized characters, while displaying an undercurrent of love and acceptance as the driving plot devices. The layers of character complexity and the selfless, devoted motive of the protagonist sets this film aside from others. There lacks a sense of manipulation and self-gain as seen in Rain Man, and there is an absence of slapstick comedy through misrepresentation as exhibited by the rube anti-heroes in Dumb and Dumber. There is also no assumption that Gilbert’s younger brother, Arnie (played brilliantly by Leonardo DiCaprio) is violent due to his developmental delay, a common misrepresentation reminiscent of Lennie in Of Mice and Men.
Struggles with mental health are embedded throughout the film to the point where their lively complexities are diametrically opposed to the dull town of Endora. Gilbert’s younger brother, Arnie, is a seventeen-year-old who displays an array of emotions and mannerisms that are both chaotic and stress-inducing. Sharp tics, sudden bursts of laughter at inappropriate moments, and resurfacing of past traumas are a regular occurrence in the Grape household. He displays habitual tendencies through enjoyment of routinely watching campers drive through their barren hometown, along with climbing trees and the local water tower, drawing perpetual attention from the county sheriff. Only Gilbert (Johnny Depp) is able to get through to Arnie by way of de-escalation techniques and playful phrases such as “match in the gas tank, boom boom” to distract him towards safety. While Arnie’s mental health condition is never explicitly defined in the film, it is mentioned that he was not expected to live to the age of eighteen, which makes the plot point of his approaching birthday party a family affair accompanying its own added pressures.
The parent/child role reversal or parentification experienced by Gilbert is painfully evident from his voice-over narration and daily routines. He is constantly supervising Arnie (despite his sisters demanding him “to do better”), while working at a local grocery store struggling to stay open against its competitor, and managing the repairs of their home which shelters his morbidly obese mother weighing in at half a ton. Gilbert’s responsibility as caregiver also extends to bathing and putting Arnie to bed at night. Witnessing these patterns, it’s understandable that when describing Arnie, Gilbert expresses “some days you want him to live, some days you don’t.”
Suppressing his own emotions to prioritize his family, Gilbert utilizes a dark sense of humor as a coping mechanism, although it translates more as a sense of opaque sadness. Describing his mother as a “beached whale”, Gilbert willingly allows neighborhood children to peer into the home’s windows to catch a glimpse of her almost as subtle revenge for needing to reconstruct the floorboards in the basement to sustain her weight - the basement where his father hung himself.
Themes of physical appearance and body image are explored through different facets within the film’s female characters. The matriarch of the Grape family is obese to the point of being heartbreakingly viewed as a sideshow attraction. When Arnie is arrested after climbing the water tower despite a final warning from police, mother Bonnie (Darlene Cates), vehement about getting Arnie released, forces herself through the grueling exercise of getting out of the house and into the car. Once she arrives at the police station and is successful at freeing Arnie, Bonnie must endure the piercing stares and the deafening snaps of the town folks' cameras as they glare at the massiveness of the woman they have not seen for years.
The camera use depicting this scene from the mother’s perspective is powerful in its honesty and a vivid tearjerker emphasizing how cruel a simple look can be to individuals that do not fit society’s standards. Despite being a former beauty queen, Bonnie’s lack of willpower to change her appearance (due to depression and an eating disorder) is counterbalanced with her fifteen-year-old daughter Ellen’s obsession with makeup to the point of vanity. These two character foils of feminine beauty ideals resonate in their familiarity among a female audience.
Gilbert’s newfound love interest, whose camper breaks down passing through town, provides him with a reinvigorated perspective. Unconcerned with physical appearance, Becky (Juliette Lewis) who believes it is the actions of individuals that make them beautiful, introduces the simple sweetness of the world back into Gilbert whether that be laying under the stars, swimming in the lake, or discussing acceptance of those you love. Her patience matches Gilbert’s when interacting with Arnie, and her lack of jealousy from his previous relationship with bored housewife, Betty Carver (Mary Steenburgen), brings a refreshing sense of balance to Gilbert’s otherwise dramatic existence.
While most characters demand his constant attention and help, Becky is independent and nurtures Gilbert with her understanding of various circumstances and people. When Arnie tells her she isn’t invited to his birthday party, Gilbert reminds him that is rude; but Becky simply responds “it’s ok, he’s just being honest.” This budding romance is the catalyst that enables Gilbert to lovingly accept those around him while also embracing his place in life - a pivotal progression into manhood. He apologizes and makes amends with his siblings at Arnie’s eighteenth birthday, fondly misses Betty, and puts his shame to rest by introducing his mother to Becky, an act he desperately wanted to avoid previously. Sitting from her bed and looking out on the party from her window, she emphasizes that she “hadn’t always looked like this” to which Becky compassionately replies that she hasn’t either.
Upon Bonnie’s death, the Grape children decide to burn the house to avoid additional onlookers. However, this time it’s not out of shame. Instead, it’s out of love and respect for their mother. While the book utilizes a picnic table as a metaphor for the Grape family, the house takes on that role in the film - decrepit and falling apart inside and out. Once the home is burned, the family is liberated from their burdens and stigmas, emphasizing a cathartic visual representation of the grief process.
The realistic depiction of marginalized characters overcoming grief and accepting disabilities is what makes this film timeless. The relatable burden of balancing selflessness and selfishness is presented in a manner that generates acceptance through empathy while the emotional intensity is carried by superb acting. These are the reasons why, twenty-five years later, we still care about what is eating Gilbert Grape.