Revisitng Gilbert Grape

I spent time with a treasured old friend yesterday. “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” from 1993 is available on streaming Netflix. I have never not loved a film by Swedish director Lasse Hallstrom, even those that get so-so reviews. The exquisitely-cast “Gilbert Grape,” overlooked at its original release, is a restrained masterpiece.

Johnny Depp has in recent years gone down a rabbit hole into quirkiness, most often choosing oddball roles and allowing mannerism to crowd out soul. God knows he’s earned the right to do what he pleases, but he’s got such a deep well of talent for both comedy and drama that I long to see him again play parts like he did the title role in “Gilbert Grape,” a young man whose small-town Iowa family demands more from him than any person should be asked to give. It’s a straight part, the opposite of quirk, and he plays it brilliantly.

Gilbert, in his early 20s, has been the head of the Grape family since his father hung himself in the basement years ago. He lives at home with his morbidly obese agoraphobic mother (Darlene Cates), two sisters, and his mentally challenged brother Arnie. Whether Gilbert is working at his job at a local grocery store, hanging out with his friends, or meeting the carnal demands of the insurance salesman’s wife (Mary Steenburgen) with whom he is having a boring affair, he has Arnie in tow. Gilbert is both fiercely protective of and perpetually infuriated by Arnie, who always says inappropriate things or runs off to climb the town water tower whenever Gilbert turns his back for more than a minute. Life gets a little more interesting for Gilbert when Becky (Juliette Lewis) arrives in the stream of trailers that comes to Endora every summer to camp.

There is little plot. Instead, Hallstrom explores the life of Endora that Gilbert describes as “like dancing to no music,” character, the loving but difficult dynamics of Gilbert’s struggling family, and a budding romance between Gilbert and Becky. Leonardo DiCaprio hit an early peak portraying Arnie. When I saw the film at its original release, years before “Titanic” and Leo-mania, I thought they’d miraculously found a young man with Down Syndrome who could learn all those lines. The producers discovered Darlene Cates, who’d never acted, on an episode of the Sally Jessie Raphael show about obese agoraphobes. She’s marvelous, bringing pathos without an ounce of sap and luminous dignity to what could have been a cheap joke character. But Depp’s quietly nuanced performance anchors this wistful, beautiful film.

(c) 2015 Susie Allison Litton. All rights reserved.

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