If Grapes Stay in Bunches, Gilbert Grape is the Vine

Gilbert Grape (Johnny Depp) tending to his younger brother (Leonardo DiCaprio).

Blood is thicker than water and for Gilbert Grape (Johnny Depp), that is exactly the reason he cannot escape from the nowhere town of Endora in director Lasse Hallstrom’s 1993 film What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.

Every family is dysfunctional, but perhaps Gilbert Grape’s family seems more dysfunctional than most. As the older brother to a mentally challenged eighteen-year-old (Leonardo DiCaprio) and a bratty adolescent teen sister (Mary Kate Schellhardt), the brother to a motherly older sister (Laura Harrington) and the son of an overweight mother (Darlene Cates), Gilbert finds himself adopting the role of the father, taking care of the house and family, ever since his dad disappeared.

Depp provides a resilient performance as the surrogate father, but with his tryst with a married woman (Mary Steenburgen) and puppy love with a worldly, beautiful girl passing through the town of Endora (Juliette Lewis), one quickly realizes that Depp’s character is still a kid at heart who never got the chance to be one. Taking on the responsibilities of hearth and home, Depp becomes a man who puts everyone else’s needs before him while his only wish for himself is to be a better person.

Yet, remaining good is hard to do when his mother weights 500 pounds and never gets out of the house and his brother Artie Grape climbs every tree or pole he can find and Gilbert finds that he keeps on messing up. But while Depp gave a strong performance as a kid who was forced to grow up — the glue to a dysfunctional family, young DiCaprio gives one of his best performances as the mentally ill younger brother. From his drooled-slurs and his much-too-loud laughter as he parrots the other’s around him to his childish mannerisms and interactions with those around him, DiCaprio becomes the mentally ill brother Artie Grape.

Despite how loud it can be in the Grape household, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape is a quiet film based on Peter Hedges’ novel. Similar to Hedges’ film Pieces of April, where a girl also discovers she cannot get rid of blood ties; What’s Eating Gilbert Grape is a story about love and family.

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