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Film / What's Eating Gilbert Grape

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"Life is a terrible thing to sleep through."

What's Eating Gilbert Grape is a 1993 drama film written by Peter Hedges, based on his novel of the same name, and directed by Lasse Hallström. It stars Johnny Depp as the eponymous Gilbert Grape, with Juliette Lewis and Leonardo DiCaprio in supporting roles. The story deals with the Grape household and their friends and acquaintances from Endora, Iowa. Picking up a few years after the suicide of Gilbert's father, we see its impact on everyone involved.

One of the main difficulties the family is having concerns Arnie Grape (DiCaprio), who is developmentally disabled; this creates a great many problems for everyone involved, especially the multiple times he climbs the town water tower and refuses to come down for anyone except his brother Gilbert.

Gilbert ends up chafing against his role as the new man of the house, along with having to find his way through some romantic tensions between a married woman (Mary Steenburgen) and a frequent traveler who just arrived in town (Lewis), the preparations for a grand party for Arnie's 18th birthday, his morbidly obese mother's declining health, and his ambition for a career and a future.

Tropes featured include:

  • Adaptational Attractiveness: In the novel, Arnie is overweight and has extremely crooked teeth, and one of his eyes is prosthetic. Amy is also described as "not bad looking", but gradually eating herself into another version of her mother.
  • Adapted Out: There are two other Grape children: eldest brother Larry (who is mentioned only once in the film as being the one who "got away") and second-oldest sister Janice, who isn't mentioned at all.
  • Alliterative Name: Gilbert Grape.
  • Author Avatar: Lasse Hallström admitted that a lot of himself is reflected in Gilbert Grape's character.
  • Big Eater: Bonnie Grape is a very tragic-comical example of the fat version.
  • Big, Screwed-Up Family: The Grapes, although it's clear that they all love one another despite their flaws.
  • A Birthday, Not a Break: While Arnie's 18th birthday is enjoyable at first, it ends in tragedy when he discovers Bonnie died in her sleep.
  • Bittersweet Ending: After climbing to her original bedroom for the first time in many years, Bonnie dies in her sleep... with Arnie discovering her body... still on his 18th birthday. In order to spare their mother from becoming the town joke, the Grape children decide to burn their house with her inside. A year later, the Grape children's lives have brightened up - Amy has a job in a bakery. Ellen is switching schools. Both Gilbert and Arnie are picked up by Becky and her grandmother so they can travel with them, thus allowing Gilbert and Becky to continue their romance.
  • Book Ends: The trailers going through Endora.
  • Bratty Teenage Daughter: Ellen Grape has gone off the rails since she hit puberty and got her braces removed. She's self-absorbed and interested in nothing but make-up and male attention, and she tries to distance herself from her family.
  • Disappeared Dad: Mr. Grape to his children since he committed suicide several years prior to the movie.
  • Dreadful Musician: Ellen is quite bad at playing the trumpet, though her poor playing could be justified by her getting her braces off, which can hinder someone's ability to play a brass instrument.
  • Driven to Suicide: Mr. Grape, before the movie begins.
  • Foolish Sibling, Responsible Sibling: A deconstruction. After the death of the Grape patriarch, Gilbert becomes the man of the household which he resents to an extent given how much pressure and stress he is under. On the other hand, the developmentally disabled Arnie often causes mischief throughout the story, not out of malice but not knowing the problems he causes, which ends up only stressing his already stress-filled family out more.
    • Elder sister Amy does her best to keep the day-to-day household functions going, often working herself to a frazzle, while younger sister Ellen is only interested in makeup and boys, and only helps around the house under duress.
  • Foreshadowing: The Fire! pinball game that Arnie plays in the cafe is a hint of how the family eventually deals with Bonnie's obese corpse.
  • The Ghost: Larry, another one of the Grape children. He's only mentioned once in the beginning along with a picture of him shown (again only once).
  • Hikkikomori: Bonnie became this after her husband's suicide. As of the beginning of the film, she hadn't left the house for over seven years. When the police detain Arnie, she breaks this.
  • Inspirationally Disadvantaged: Completely averted with Arnie, who's been described as an "uncomfortably accurate" depiction of a developmentally disabled person. He's definitely not a bad kid, and people are nice to him, but it's clear that taking care of him is an incredibly heavy burden on his family.
  • I Want My Beloved to Be Happy: Mrs. Carver graciously releasing Gilbert to Becky, knowing she has the youth and joyful heart to give him the happiness she never could.
  • I Was Quite a Looker: Bonnie Grape, in a picture (a real picture of the actress) taken before she gained the weight.
  • Kids Are Cruel:
    • The kids of Endora like to hang around the Grape residence, hoping to have a chance to catch a glimpse of and laugh at the morbidly obese Bonnie. Curiously enough, they are never shown to bully Arnie, and are actually very accepting of him, however, some of this might be because of Gilbert's "Nobody Touches Arnie" rule.
    • It's implied at the end that Ellen herself was anxious to switch schools; probably not many friends to leave behind if she was constantly teased. By the way she treats Arnie throughout the movie, Ellen was most likely teased on his and their mother's account.
  • Knight in Sour Armor: Gilbert does everything for his family without complaint, but is secretly resentful about it to his friends.
  • Let the Past Burn: The family's solution to how to deal with their dead mother's immovably heavy corpse at the end of the film: light the house on fire, as burning her body on the top floor this is the only way to dispose of it without public humiliation. In this case, the fire symbolizes protection.
  • The Load: Arnie is developmentally disabled and constantly causes nothing but trouble for the family, while his mother Bonnie is rendered useless by her morbid obesity (as she admits, later).
  • Make It Look Like an Accident: Discussed by Gilbert's friends about Mr. Carver after he drowns in a kiddie pool. It's arguably subverted because he had a heart attack, which is what caused him to collapse in such a way that he drowned in the pool.
  • Mama Bear: Bonnie Grape. When the cops detain Arnie for climbing the water tower again, she risks her own health and being humiliated in public due to her weight, walking into the police station and demanding to know where Arnie is.
  • Manic Pixie Dream Girl: Becky seems to be one for Gilbert.
  • Mantis Mating Meal: Discussed. A girl introduces herself to a boy, and her first conversation consists of explaining how praying mantises eat their mates during sex.
  • Mrs. Robinson: Betty Carver, who has been having an affair with Gilbert since shortly after he graduated high school.
  • My God, What Have I Done?:
    • At the beginning of the movie, Arnie - the mentally challenged young man - kills a grasshopper by beheading it, and then cries to Gilbert about itnote .
    • Later on in the movie, Gilbert loses his cool - leading him to slap Arnie around, after being so protective of him.
  • No OSHA Compliance: The town water tower is incredibly easy to climb. All access to the ladder should be locked off.
  • One-Book Author: Darlene Cates' only theatrically-released acting role during her lifetimenote . As described under He Really Can Act, she was cast through Sally Jessy Raphael's show, because they couldn't find a real actress large enough to fit the role.
  • Older Than They Look: Arnie, who's supposedly having his 18th birthday, doesn't look a day older than 12. Interestingly, Leonardo DiCaprio was actually 19 when the film was made, making him a year older than his character.
  • The One Who Made It Out:
    • Janice and Larry, the two eldest Grape siblings.
    • Also done with Gilbert and Arnie, who look to leave the town with Becky and her grandma when the latter two revisit the town in their trailer.
  • Outdoor Bath Peeping: Of an incredibly wholesome variety. After refusing to bathe for weeks, Arnie goes missing in the middle of the night. Gilbert finally locates him with Becky, who's convinced Arnie to join her in a moonlight swim in the pond. As he watches in secret, Gilbert is so moved by Becky's kindness that he cries for the first time since his father died.
  • Passed in Their Sleep: Bonnie goes upstairs to her bedroom for the first time in ages, goes to sleep in her bed, and dies there.
  • Please Wake Up: How Arnie, and later the rest of the family, reacts to the discovery that their mother has died.
  • Posthumous Character: Mr. Grape is already dead by the start of the movie.
  • Post-Stress Overeating: The reason as to why/how Bonnie became so obese, as she took to watching TV and eating since her husband died.
  • Promoted to Parent: Gilbert and his sisters, Amy and Ellen, are all this to Arnie after their father died and their mother became too morbidly obese to take care of them. However, Gilbert is definitely the primary breadwinner and Arnie's main caregiver, as Amy is usually too busy taking care of Momma (which requires staying at home most of the time since Momma is housebound) and Ellen is too young and too impatient to be trusted with Arnie.
  • Resentful Guardian: Gilbert is constantly on edge due to being the sole caretaker of Arnie and the only financial supporter of the family. Arnie is already a handful, Bonnie is reclusive and underappreciates Gilbert, Ellen either ignores her duties or is too rough with Arnie, Amy is up to her eyeballs caring for Bonnie and the home and constantly pressures Gilbert to "do better," and the massive amount of food Bonnie requires consumes most of the money Gilbert makes, leaving him with nothing for his own future.
  • Small Town Boredom: Welcome to Endora, Iowa, where they look up to the majestic happenings of Des Moines, Iowa, and where the opening of a Burger Barn is an event that requires a speech from the mayor.
    Gilbert: Describing Endora is like dancing to no music.
  • Super Drowning Skills: Arnie fears that he has this and refuses to go in or near water after he is left in a bathtub overnight (One gets the feeling that Momma may have told him that he "could've drowned" and that Artie took her literally.).
  • Teens Are Monsters: Ellen is vain, self-absorbed, and ungrateful toward her elder siblings, particularly Gilbert. She never helps out around the house, and she's too impatient and immature to take care of Arnie; the one time she's required to look after him, she ends up knocking him to the ground and jerking him around by the hair.
  • Those Two Guys: Gilbert's friends, a handyman and a mortician, who often discuss the new Burger Barn that's about to open and how much better than other fast food chains they are.
  • Time Skip: There is a one-year time skip after Bonnie's death.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: Gilbert gets two.
    • One from his friends when he lifts up a little boy to gawk at his obese mother like a sideshow attraction.
    • Another from his family when he leaves Arnie alone in the bathtub all night to hang out with Becky.