What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993): Hallstrom’s Melancholy Tale of Dysfunctional Family, Starring Johnny Depp and Leonardo DiCaprio

Lasse Hallstrom’s bitter-sweet comedy-drama, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, set in small-town Iowa, is penned by Peter Hodges based on his own novel of the same title.

Johnny Depp, who’s quickly becoming an iconic actor, stars in the title role, as a youngster who holds a menial job in a store, though most of the time, he struggles to keep his overweight agoraphobic mother Darlene, retarded brother Arnie, and two troubled sisters in line. Gilbert also has to deal with an unfulfilled married woman (Mary Steenburgen), who lusts after him, his bosses, and a creepy friend (Crispin Glover) who works in the funeral parlor.

In short, the movie if full of eccentric characters, though Hallstrom (who earlier directed the charming, Oscar-nominated Swedish comedy My Life as a Dog) admirably refrains from giving them a schematic treatment.

Life gets a bit more interesting with the opening of a fast food hamburger franchise–and the arrival of a romantic youngster (Juliette Lewis), who’s stranded in town with her grandmother (Penelope Branning), when their car is having engine problems.

It’s one of the few American movies that deal with the growing issue of obesity, or more specifically, how society fears, loathes, and victimizes fat people and the impact of that stigma not only on their identities and personalities, but also on those surrounding them.

As Arnie, Gilbert’s mentally retarded brother, DiCaprio gives a masterful performance devoid of any clich that’s bound to catapult him to a brighter future as a major star.

Under Hallstrom’s helm, the mood of the piece changes effortlessly from offbeat quirkiness to cute romanticism to farcical sexuality, and then to darkly disturbing tone.

I don’t want to denigrate the film and label it as a yarn dysfunctional family, which now seems to populate every other American picture. What’s Eating Gilbert Grape is not a great film, but it’s a good one, worth attending for its subject and acting, which is uniformly strong.

Both Johnny Depp and Leonardo DiCaprio played that year troubled youths in other films, the former in Benny & Joon and the latter in This Boy’s Life.

Oscar Nomination: 1

Supporting Actor: Leonardo DiCaprio

The winner was Tommy Lee Jones for “The Fugitive,” in a race that also included Ralph Fiennes in “Schindler’s List,” John Malkovich in “In the Line of Fire,” and Pete Postlethwaite in “In the Name of the Father.”

This was a breakthrough year for DiCaprio, who also made a strong impression in the family melodrama, “This Boy’s Life,” co-starring Robert De Niro.

Detailed Synopsis:

The tale begins and ends with the voice over narration of Gilbert Grape, Played by Depp.

In the small town of Endora, Iowa, Gilbert takes care of Arnie (DiCaprio), his mentally challenged brother, as they wait for the many tourists’ trailers to pass through town during the annual Airstreamers’ Club gathering.

Since his father had hanged himself 7 years ago, his mother, Bonnie (Darlene Cates), has spent most of her time on the couch watching TV and eating; she is an obese.

Gilbert has taken responsibility for repairing the house and looking after Arnie, who likes to climb the town water tower. The relationship between the brothers is intimate–Gilbert enforces the “nobody touches Arnie” policy.

A new FoodLand supermarket has opened, threatening the small Lamson’s Grocery where Gilbert works.  Gilbert is having an affair with a married woman, Betty Carver (Mary Steenburgen).

The family is looking forward to Arnie’s 18th birthday.  Meanwhile, young woman Becky (Juliette Lewis) and her grandmother are stuck in town, when their trailer breaks down.

Gilbert’s begins a budding romance with Becky, and once, leaving Arnie alone, the boy stays in the bath a whole day and night.

His affair with Betty ends when she leaves town after her husband’s death from drowning.

Arnie is arrested after being rescued from the top of the tower, turning his mother, who has not left the house in years, into the object of ridicule, when she heads to the police station to force Arnie’s release.

When Arnie tries to run away yet again from his bath, Gilbert finally loses his temper and hits him. Gilbert, upset, drives away, and Arnie runs out to Becky’s, who takes care of him until he is picked up by his sisters.

Gilbert returns home during the birthday party to make amends with his family. He apologizes to his mother for his behavior, and promises that he will not let her be hurt any more. She acknowledges being a burden, and he forgives her.

After Arnie’s 18th birthday party, Bonnie climbs the stairs to her bedroom for the first time since her husband’s suicide. Arnie tries to wake her only to realize she has died. The children, not willing to let their mother become the joke of the town by having her corpse lifted by crane, empty their home of possessions and set it on fire.

A year later, Gilbert describes what happened to his family after his mother’s death, as he and Arnie wait by the side of a road for Becky to pick them up.


Gilbert Grape (Johnny Depp)
Becky (Juliette Lewis)
Arnie Grape (Leonardo DiCaprio)
Betty Carver (Mary Steenburgen)
Bobby McBurney (Crispin Glover)
Tucker Van Dyke (John C. Reilly)
Momma (Darlene Cates)
Amy Grape (Laura Harrington)
Ellen Grape (Mary Kate Schellhardt)
Mr. Carver (Kevin Tighe)


Produced by Meier Teper, Bertil Ohlsson, and David Matalon.
Directed by Lasse Hallstrom.
Screenplay: Peter Hedges, based om his novel.
Camera: Sven Nykvist.
Editor: Andrew Mondshein.
Music: Alan Parker, Bjorn Isfalt.
Production design: Bernt Capra.
Costumes: Renee Ehrlich Kalfus.