Although distributed by Paramount, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape is an understated gem of the 1990s indie scene. Like The Last Picture Show, its New Hollywood cousin, Grape is a small town coming-of-age story with young characters that dream of the wider world and whether they have a place in it. Now, after years of being in the online wilderness, Lasse Hallström’s cult favourite will land on digital platforms 16th April and Amazon Prime Video 7th May.
So, what is eating Gilbert Grape (Johnny Depp)? Well, there are several things. Stuck in a sparse Iowan town, Gilbert works a menial day job at a failing grocers, tends to his obese mother’s every whim, and cares for his brother Arnie (Leonard DiCaprio), a mentally impaired teenager who is endearing yet extremely challenging. You could be forgiven for thinking this was the premise of a kitchen sink drama, yet What’s Eating Gilbert Grape is a gentle, humorous film that casts a hopeful sheen over abject family dysfunction. Just listen to the beautiful score to get an idea of Grape’s wistful, wholesome vibe.Almost three decades later, Grape is a nostalgic time capsule of its leads Depp and DiCaprio. As Grape, Depp is insouciant and unassuming, lending an amiable stoicism to his character as he is nagged and pressured by friends, family and colleagues. However, most of his scenes are stolen by DiCaprio’s remarkable work as Arnie. It is a studied and utterly convincing performance that remains among Leo’s very best work. In fact, it’s one of the few roles in which DiCaprio truly disappears into his character.
Despite his range and intensity as an actor, DiCaprio’s enormous celebrity has proved to be distracting. Rather than embody the role he is playing, his career has often felt like ‘Leonardo does…Wall Street, African diamond mining, the Old West et al.’ But in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Leo is very much Arnie, a spritely young man with boundless energy and a touching capacity for forgiveness.Similarly compelling is the casting of Darlene Cates – a non professional actor – as the Grape matriarch, ‘Momma’. Screenwriter Peter Hedges had seen Cates in an episode of Sally titled ‘Too Heavy to Leave Their House’, in which Cates detailed her obesity and how it had kept her bedridden. Despite having no dramatic experience, Hedges offered her the role, which she accepted. Cates proved a natural, effortlessly striking a balance of humour, shame and self-indulgence. Much of the film’s playful humour is at the expense of Cates’s character, yet it always avoids mean spiritedness despite scenes of her immense weight tilting their car’s suspension and an entire subplot in which her thunderous footsteps begin to weaken the foundations of their rickety old farmhouse.
Though it may seem tame or even cornball to some, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape makes a lasting impression with its quirky performances and bittersweet themes of hope, humility and perseverance.
What’s Eating Gilbert Grape is available on digital platforms 16th April and Amazon Prime Video 7th May