01 January 2016

Combustion and Connection

Lasse Hallström's What's Eating Gilbert Grape? is a story of freeing oneself from the shackles of the past while embracing meaningful interpersonal relationships borne from the present moment.

Gilbert Grape (Johnny Depp), the older brother-turned-patriarch of the family, years after the wake of his own father's suicide, mentors and cares for his younger brother, Arnie (Leonardo DiCaprio), who suffers from a developmental disability.

Yet, suffering from his own quandaries, Gilbert still fails to understand his own personal necessities, balancing his own relationship with a married mother of two, Betty (Mary Steenburgen), with that of a companion of only a few weeks, a traveler camping in the area, Becky (Juliette Lewis).
Midway through the film, Gilbert comes to believe that all of his relationships must sum to zero: During every delivery for Betty, he leaves Arnie behind, leading Arnie to regularly attempt to climb atop the local water tower; whereas, Gilbert's first evening alone with Becky ultimately led to Arnie remaining alone and unsupervised in a chilled bathtub for the night.

Simultaneously, Gilbert watches his own feats destroy those around him. Solely in lighting matches, Gilbert lights Betty's cigarette, helping to sooth her stress while they caress each other, her husband only yards away; his morbidly obese mother's cigarette, testing her own mortality; and, finally, his own decaying home, to rid his remaining family of their past residence, as they commence their transition to the outside world, beyond the confines of what once was.

Ultimately, Gilbert needs to happen upon someone willing to bridge his relationships together, and Becky provides that. Caring for Arnie even when Gilbert abandoned him, Becky presents herself as the sole character unafraid of what many believe to be Gilbert's familial troubles. Indeed, she is one of the few characters who treat Gilbert's mother, Bonnie (Darlene Cates), with bona fide respect, valuing not her physical characteristics in any determination of personal worth.

The end of the film reminds us, however painfully, of the ephemerality of the relationships we foster. And yet, What's Eating Gilbert Grape? is a testimony to the unmistakable beauty of personal choice and opportunity: For all that our loves and desires may attempt to escape from us, when we hold onto our hope, the best may always return.

Gilbert Grape (Johnny Depp) comforts his crying younger brother Arnie (Leonardo DiCaprio).
Image Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

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