Sean K. Cureton

Small Town Hero

In My Favorite Movies on December 19, 2015 at 6:21 pm
What's Eating Gilbert Grape

Paramount Pictures

What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993)
Directed by Lasse Hallström
Commercial Release: December 17, 1993

Standing as the first feature film script from writer-director Peter Hedges, who later made such tender and indispensable twenty-first century dramas as About a Boy and Dan in Real Life, Lasse Hallström’s What’s Eating Gilbert Grape is an important stepping stone in the aforementioned filmmaker’s body of work. Starring a young Johnny Depp as Gilbert Grape, the reluctant patriarch in a family consisting of two put-upon sisters, a mentally-challenged younger brother, and one morbidly obsese, and accordingly incapacitated, widowed mother, Hallström and Hedge’s drama serves as one of the most masterfully articulated cinematic portraitures of domestic stagnation. Endora, Iowa serves as the geographic locale for much of Gilbert’s imposed moral servitude, a rest-stop between places where life is truly lived. The inhabitants of the film’s metaphoric nowhere-land are all well seeming enough, though their lives are accentuated by an undeniable undercurrent of tacit apathetic resignation to personal progression of any kind. There is no real goal to be achieved in Hedges’ Endora, which makes Hallström’s film a special sort of American fable.

Upon first seeing the film, when I was perhaps only about thirteen or fourteen, I was immediately drawn into a story wherein an inexplicably precocious young man was the chief object of female affection. Watching Gilbert’s desires placated, first by a sad housewife, played by the comfortingly doting Mary Steenburgen, and later from a more age-appropriate, but likewise unrealistic and effectively fanciful, young girl of the proverbially adolescent imagination, conjured on the screen however capably by Juliette Lewis, was regressively heartwarming to me at the time. In the years since, I find no emotional sustenance in either of these two central romances of the film’s plot, but still see something tragic in both of their characters that serves to uplift the surrounding, and more thematically compelling, drama. In the Endora of Hedges’ fever dream, simply wishing to be good is enough for a while, but escape from the comforts of familiar tradition and home is ultimately made necessary with the passage of time, and the dawn of oncoming adult maturity. When the Grape home is burned following the death of Gilbert’s mother at the end of the film, there is a sense of renewal for all of the characters involved, thus allowing Gilbert and his brother to go anywhere at film’s end, even if their chosen destination with Lewis’ manic-pixie-dream-girl remains a childhood fantasy.

But there is still something held up within the hyperbole and schmaltz that allows some of the film’s better intentions to shine through the immaturity of a screenwriter still coming into his own as a filmmaker. What’s Eating Gilbert Grape is an entirely self-reflexive and emotionally self-involved production, to the say the least, but it is also one of the truest cinematic expressions a very specific sense of desperation and melancholy known only to small town, American life. Gilbert is educated to a certain extent, and is sympathetic and compassionate in a way that is unusual given his circumstances, and as such plays like a sort of manic-pixie-dream-boy to Juliette Lewis’ symbiotically precocious young woman. There is a certain give-and-take element at play between the young lovers in Hallström’s film that serves to heighten the social drama at work against the larger surrounding picture and narrative circumstances. The encroaching threat of capitalism, seen in the invading presences of the Burger Barn fast food outlet and FoodLand supermarket, is a menace to the film’s celebration of conservative privacy, though the influences of a surrounding global culture still seeks to make its presence known in a way familiar to anyone now living in an age of hyper-connectivity via social media, that serves as a symbol for Gilbert’s more personal strivings towards worldly independence and freedom, that stands as the film’s sole escape from small town servility.

And yet there is a tenderness and emotional sustenance to be sustained by staying within the boundaries of childhood and familial longing that tethers Gilbert to his family estate, regardless of the toxic consequences such a decision may wreak upon his own mental health and general stability. The incontinent nature of his younger brother, played with an understated significance by a young Leonardo DiCaprio, is both a boon and a bother to Gilbert’s own sense of self-agency, however much he cares, loves, and has paradoxically come to depend on that very same sense of co-dependency. For Gilbert, Endora is a small town wherein he is the lone hero, keeping him from wandering very far for fear of leaving those who are the most nearest and dearest to himself in harm’s way. Enter Juliette Lewis, the untimely death of his beleaguered mother, and the extermination of his ancestral abode, and he becomes freed to pursue personal transcendence outside of the bonds of familial responsibility. There is liberation at film’s end that feels like a shaking off of authoritarian bonds, but there is also a somber reluctance to leave, with our hero’s final exit one decided for him by the will of the world around him.

Finally, then, Hedges’ feature film debut is something of a quaintly articulated coming of age tale, as familiar as any other, and as fool-headed as any like-minded social fable born out of youthful ignorance and passion. However, through the more guided directorial vision of Hallström, a more nuanced and carefully orchestrated domestic epic unfolds in miniature that is as judiciously minded visuall speaking as the script at times pretends to be rhetorically. Twenty-two years after the fact, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape is a modest success, but not one that warrants any serious critical study. But by the power of its emotionally impassioned melodrama, Hedges’ original story and adapted script remain as powerfully moving and movingly precious as ever, for better and for worse. There are greater films from the past two decades to cite and revisit before this one, but due to the performances contained within the confines of Hedges’quaintly applied small town yearnings, his adolescent hero is still one worth celebrating for the sake nostalgia for one’s own quickly receding youthful effervesce.

What’s Eating Gilbert Grape is available to own on DVD, and is the latest feature to be included as one of My Favorite Movies.

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