From the List of Shame, File #11: What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?

I tend to shy away from family dramas, as they usually hold no interest for me. I know everyone’s family has problems, and I don’t need a movie to tell me that. However, Jill was very adamant about me watching What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?, consistently praising the performances of Johnny Depp and Leonardo DiCaprio (DiCaprio was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for the role. He was 19).

For those that may not be aware, the film centers on Gilbert Grape (Johnny Depp), and his family, who live in rural Endora, Iowa. Gilbert works at the local mom and pop grocery store, while his sisters do the housework. Their mother is morbidly obese because of the severe depression she sinks into following the suicide of the family’s father. However, Gilbert’s most important job is looking after his brother Artie (DiCaprio), who is mentally disabled.

While the film also deals with Gilbert’s affair with a married woman, his romance with a girl passing through town (Juliette Lewis), a new chain supermarket, and other goings-on in Endora, it was the relationship between Gilbert and Artie that really hit home for me. You see my brother has what most people would call a mental disability, Asperger’s syndrome. I don’t really consider my brother disabled, he’s just different from most people, and has trouble navigating social constructs (and some other things). Watching the movie gave me a real appreciation for Peter Hedges script, Lasse Hallström’s direction, and of course Depp and DiCaprio’s performances.

Certainly, the character of Raymond Babbitt in Rain Man probably has more in common with my brother in terms of symptoms (except that my brother is not a savant, insofar as anyone is aware). However, the way the film portrays the relationship between Gilbert and Artie is very similar to how my brother and I were as kids (if my parents had been largely out of the picture like theirs).

Gilbert shows a lot of care and protectiveness toward his brother, and feels immense guilt when he makes mistakes or inadvertently hurts him. Artie, in turn, shows Gilbert more love and respect than anyone else he knows, completely idolizing his brother. It is this relationship that also forms the bedrock of the film.

You may not have as personal a connection with this film as I ended up having, but I think it’s worthwhile for anyone to see.