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).
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.