The flick that got Leonardo DiCaprio his first Oscar nomination follows Johnny Depp as a guy stuck in small-town Iowa, dealing with his family and dreaming of getting out.
Dir. Lasse Hallstrom (1993)
The plot of What's Eating Gilbert Grape isn't a world beater; rather, it's the stuff of small-town Bruce Springsteen songs. In Hallstrom's lovely and smartly observed film (he's since had an uneven Hollywood career, recently helming the hit Dear John), Johnny Depp stars as the frustrated young Gilbert Grape, a 21-year-old kid sleepwalking through his responsibilities, namely, his family: his two sisters, his grieving 500-pound mother (Darlene Cates, who was discovered on a Sally Jessy Raphael episode), and his retarded younger brother Arnie (Leonardo DiCaprio in an impressive, Oscar-nominated performance). He takes some pleasure in an affair with a lonely housewife (Mary Steenburgen) and starts to open up to a young woman named Becky (Juliette Lewis).
And as Gilbert starts to fall in love, his life changes in small increments. But what's really touching about this film, based on the (very much worth-reading) book by Peter Hedges, who also wrote the screenplay, is the care and evenness of its eye. Frankly, it's surprising, considering the ways that many indie films with these elements have gone so wrong in the past 15 years. There are characters that could be quirky freak grotesques in the wrong hands—overweight mothers, retarded brothers, ignorant small town folk—and the film treats them with care and respect.
DiCaprio's work, in particular, is exemplary, and probably the reason this film is remembered. He's uncanny and unrecognizable in the role, and deserved any accolade he received. Movies as well-observed as Gilbert Grape don't come around as often as they should, and it's a work that's worthy of your time.
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