Don't You Forget About: What's Eating Gilbert Grape

Sure, it's fun to catch the latest flick at the multiplex, or grab the newest release at a video store, but sometimes you just gotta say, "Out with the new, and in with the unknown." There are plenty of older flicks out there that are worth a rental, but never registered on your radar. In Don't You Forget About, we remember the long-gone gems, so you don't have to.
Photo: Movieposter.com

As hard as it is to believe (especially if you grew up in the Titanic generation) Leonardo DiCaprio wasn't always ruggedly intense box-office babe. Once upon a time, he was simply a cute little TV star whose only big-screen experience was limited to minor roles in Poison Ivy and Critters 3. That is, until he bit into the movie that gave him his big breakthrough, and what may still be the plummiest role of his career: What's Eating Gilbert Grape

The film  follows, who else, a young man named Gilbert Grape (Johnny Depp) who lives in an old house in a small-town called Endora with his morbidly obese widower of a mom (Darlene Cates), his sisters Ellen (Mary Kate Schellhardt) and Amy (Laura Harrington) and his mentally challenged teenage brother, Arnie (DiCaprio). Gilbert's home life is fairly stressful (his mom is no longer fit enough to climb the stairs, hasn't left the house in seven years and has become a town mockery and Arnie's always getting into some sort of unintentional trouble), his work life is monotonous (he works at the local  grocery, which is slowly being phased out by a fancy lobster-laden Foodland), his social life is pretty much non-existent (his only real friends are Tucker (John C. Reilly), a dude obsessed with  opening a fast food franchise in town and Bobby (Crispin Glover), a creepy thin, undertaker) and his love life is well, complicated (he's having an affair with a older woman played by Mary Steenburgen).

Every year, Gilbert and Arnie like to watch the parade of RVs whiz through the sad little farm town. Usually the rolling homes just pass by and ignore Arnie's pleas that they honk their horn, but one day, a friendly young lady (Juliette Lewis) makes a stop-over in Endora with her trailer and her gran and breathes life - and real love - into Gilbert's slowly fading life.

Although the film was clearly marketed as a Depp (and Juliette Lewis) vehicle (see: the original poster, title), it's DiCaprio who makes Gilbert Grape so remarkable. Although his more recent roles (Shutter Island, Inception, Revolutionary Road) have all been endlessly engaging, they are also a little too similar to be truly impressive and award-worthy. Over the last decade or so, he has perfected the charming, but slightly detached main man. But with this role however, 19-year-old Leo moved completely outside of himself. If his baby face wasn't so ingrained in our brains now, we might not even believe it's him anymore.

Leo won serious praise - and his first Oscar nom - for his heart-breaking portrayal of Arnie. And he still deserves it. He transformed himself head to toe for the role, adjusting his mannerisms, facial expressions, walk, laugh and tone of voice to suit his character's unique personality. But unlike many portrayals of challenged characters, it doesn't come off as insensitive and overdone. It just feels natural - and truly touching.

DiCaprio looks at developmentally disabled Arnie like a carefree child who truly believes everything is new, innocent and playful, lighting up at the thought of a birthday party or the sight of lone grasshopper. His eyes are always wide, ready to take in whatever adventure - real, or imaginary - he encounters. But he also channels the not-so-blissful ignorance, stubbornness and lack of emotional control that comes with being very young. In the opening scene, he falls apart after accidentally killing a bug during play, realizing that his actions were too big for the little crawler. Suddenly, his formerly friendly face collapses, his eyes slam shut and his hands start to shake as though he himself has suffered the pain.

What's Eating Gilbert Grape would have a lot going for it, even if DiCaprio's performance wasn't so undeniably impressive. The script is softly funny, at the right moments, and uncomfortably emotional at others, making for a breezy, but wholly heartfelt story and characterizations you actually care to see through. The man responsible for this is none other than Peter Hedges, the director of overlooked bittersweet dramedies of the last decade, Pieces of April, and the Steve Carell movie you never saw but should, Dan in Real Life.

Hedges seems to have a way with quirky, non-indie-annoying family drama and this film may be his best. Just try not to cry at his climax, which has the family's mental and physical shelter under fire. To indirectly quote a wise, Leo-loving lady, it's that scene you'll really never be able to really let go of.

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