Most of us, if not all, have had quarrels with our family. Perhaps it’s anger towards not being able to go to a party or getting mad at your parents for not buying you that new iPhone everyone at school has. Teenagers seem to identify with the typical “I hate my life” line and lash out until they eventually leave their resentful phase. In the midst of a myriad of teenage angst and coming of age movies, “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” is a jewel, crafted by an excellent character dynamic that utilizes insightful storytelling about an adult entangled in selfless pursuits. The 1990s film follows Gilbert Grape’s (Johnny Depp) struggles of taking care of his obese mother, inconsiderate sisters and his autistic brother, Arnie (Leonardo DiCaprio). He soon meets Becky (Juliette Lewis), a free-spirited woman in town, who shows Gilbert that there’s more to life. After his father’s suicide, Gilbert transitions into being the “man of the house” and seemingly loses himself, as the film highlights the lengths he will go to for his family.
The ambiguity that surrounds the main character, Gilbert Grape, is what makes it unique from other films. Unlike “Beautiful Boy” or “Ladybird,” films where the younger protagonists possess fits of rage and disagreements with their parents, “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” focuses on a more in-depth character involved in a dysfunctional family relationship. Some shows, such as “Atypical” for example, follow an autistic protagonist but do not entirely convey how illnesses impact other family members, especially older siblings who are often at the forefront to take care of their younger siblings. The film does justice in effectively displaying the struggles Gilbert undergoes as he must grow up too fast in order to carry the weight of the world on his shoulders. He is encompassed in a never-ending loop of caring for a family that fails to acknowledge his effort, and he struggles to pave a path for himself. The storyline sheds his unique layers, as he is first seen absorbed in fury and despondency and simply going through the motions. Then, Gilbert becomes comfortable with exploring what he truly wants with Becky’s aid.
The film doesn’t necessarily showcase Gilbert as the good guy in the story. Sure, he may seem like the perfect son as he looks after and provides for his family, but he engages in unsympathetic deeds. Hence, what distinguishes the film from others is that it is both a tragedy and a lovely tale of family. On one hand, Gilbert always wants the betterment of others and would bend over backwards for his family, but on the other, he punches Arnie for a trivial issue and blames his mother for his miserable life. He desires to be a good person but feels guilty for wanting something more for himself. Gilbert’s lifestyle is a question of morals. Should he abandon his family for a content life? Is he justified in treating his mother as his emotional punching bag? Gilbert is not just a one-sided character, and the film really makes the audience ponder if his actions are right or wrong.
Furthermore, the film embodies aesthetic scenes, such as the protagonists in a field overlooking a timeless sunset with soft hues that curate a gentle sweetness in the atmosphere. The scenes create a peaceful ambiance to find joy in the little things and do well in showcasing a “perfect life,” yet it is far from that as tension stemming from the Grape family remains ever present. What makes the film quite unique is its ability to portray a tranquil sphere, even when things go south for Gilbert.
The film is sure to immerse anyone with its beautiful dialogue and life lessons. The character dynamics and pleasant scenery make the classic film well worth the watch. It offers another take on what family entails and the struggles that arise with responsibilities, hence focusing on a profound issue that audiences can relate to. After all, no one has a “perfect family,” and the film is a perfect example.