Set in Endora, which is described as being "like dancing with no music," the most exciting thing that happens throughout the film is Arnie's 18th Birthday Party and the arrival of the "Burger Barn."
Arnie, Gilbert's (Johnny Depp) mentally handicapped brother, always finds a way to escape Gilbert's watching eyes and climb up the tempting water tower. This is his way of getting in trouble with the cops, not shop lifting or drug dealing, but just exploring the local water tower. And when the police finally arrest him it causes his 500 pound mother (Darlene Cates) to leave the house after seven years and demand for her precious son back. The director, Lasse Hallstrom, is very clever in how he uses humour and pathos in this scene. On the family's way to the station the audience is able to laugh as the car tips up, nearly scraping the road, weighed down by the angry 500lb angry mother. However, on their way out of the station they find themselves part of a freak show, leaving the audience to feel horror and sympathy.
Gilbert also has many of other responsibilities as well as keeping a constant watchful eye on Arnie: earning the money, maintaining the house and caring for his overweight mother and his two sisters. These things play heavily on his mind which is why his secret affair with Mrs. Carver (Mary Steenburgen) is very welcome at first. However when a free-spirited beautiful young woman arrives in a RV with her grandmother (Penelope Branning), the affair has to come to an end, helped by the death of Mrs. Carver's husband, who has formerly been threatening Gilbert.
Becky, played by Juliette Lewis, is a down-to-earth character; someone like Gilbert has never met before. Becky and her Grandmother have been travelling almost everywhere and stop in Endora long enough for Becky and Gilbert to get to know each other very well and to start a romance. The arrival of Becky, however, changes the Grapes' routine and way of life.
This film equals Lasse Hallstrom's other art house films such as "My Life As A Dog" and "Something To Talk About." This Scandinavian director risked a great deal in experimenting with this film. One of the things he tries is the use of a voice over. This, used at the beginning, introduces us to the characters and the setting, Endora. At the end it lets us know where the characters end up and what they do. I think this is a bad technique in this film mainly because of the use of Gilbert's humdrum voice, which in a way warns the audience of the dullness that's to come.
Hallstrom purposely chose the camera shots he uses throughout the film to give the film its homeliness. The recurring picture of the water tower in the background lets the audience appreciate Gilbert's responsibility. Gilbert's truck is also another frequent occurrence, which us see everyone in it, so we can observe their reactions and emotions to what is happening. This links to the camera shots through windows. These are also very common in the film and tie in with the "fly on the wall" technique, which is a favourite with reality T.V programs. As I previously said the film is like an observation of this family and this technique enables us to just watch them and feel like we are there with them, which makes us feel more 'close' and we can sympathise with them because of their circumstances, as I'm sure that there is a little bit of Gilbert Grape in all of us.
If you were a top famous Hollywood actor, would you be able to significantly play a mid-west, average twenty-odd year old man? In my opinion there would have been no one better than Johnny Depp in this case. He plays the part of Gilbert excellently, not over-the-top or over dramatic but perfectly, just how you'd imagine Gilbert to be after reading the novel. Compared to Depp's previous roles, such as in "Edward Scissorhands," he really did have to act 'down' in this film
Johnny Depp is not the only actor in the film that I feel played an excellent performance. Leonardo Di Caprio also had a hard role to play as the 'retarded' eighteen year old with the mind of a four year old. He obviously researched and thought greatly about how he should act such a difficult character, but he definitely pulled it off!
Although the film is mainly pivoted around Arnie's eighteenth birthday party, the film has many sub-plots, which all have their own significance throughout the film. For instance the water tower, Mrs. Carver, the scenes in the cafï¿½ and a few others. These all bond the film together in order to make it what it is; a great family film.
A really important recurring point that is made throughout the film is when Arnie says "we're not going anywhere." In a way this is the key point of the whole film as only until the very end Gilbert has no choice but to stay in Endora and look after his mother and the rest of his family, unlike his older brother, Larry, who 'got away' and went to college.
And now, the question, what actually is eating Gilbert Grape? Personally I think that it is all his responsibilities but mainly, not looking after Arnie as much as having the burden of his overweight mother sitting at home doing nothing, him having to care for her and his siblings, when really it should be the other way around.
Although I really enjoyed watching this film many people didn't and have slated it in the past. I think it depends on your own personal taste in films and what you expect and want from a film. And whatever that may be I recommend you watch "What's Eating Gilbert Grape."