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View of disability in "What's Eating Gilbert Grape?"

Updated on April 4, 2012

Disability is the focus of the 1993 movie “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape”. This is an older movie I had never seen before and it was an eye opening look at disability in all forms and manifestations. One might say that Arnie Grape, played superbly by Leo DiCaprio was the most disabled of all characters in the film, but I believe each character is disabled in some way, from the overweight mother played by Darlene Cates, the two sisters who live to care for their obese mother and mentally disabled brother, to the quintessential Gilbert, played by an ever so handsome and effective Johnny Depp.

Depp is seen as a prisoner in a dead end town, in a dead end job, playing lothario to the Insurance man’s wife, and chasing his brother to varied “heights” including the town water tower. DiCaprio plays Arnie to a “T” utilizing vocal inflections, a crazy laugh and mannerisms that identify him as a mentally challenged young man. Arnie flicks at his nose, he walks in an awkward step and is brash and outspoken when it is not the right time and place. In one scene at a funeral, Arnie sees the new Burger Barn arriving in town and screams with delight! This, juxtaposed against the solemnity of the funerary benediction makes for a juxtaposition with the pain and the beauty of life.

Gilbert is not disabled in the sense of physical qualities, but he is unable to live his life as he would like too, having become a caregiver to the entire family. As such, he is paralyzed and his emotions in essence “eat away” at him. He knows he will never be able to leave his family and when faced with a choice not to handle one of his appointed tasks (bathing his brother), he is made aware than leaving his home for good is not an option, and there seems no end in sight to his duties. He takes his rage out on his brother in one scene, and yet as a viewer, I found myself sympathizing with his frustration. He simply has no private life, recognizing this most specifically in his inability to spend time with Becky without feeling pulled to his duties to his disabled family.

Another disabling issue in this film is the anger that the family feels whenever one of their members let the other down. Mama is quick to critique her children, but depends on their care to survive. The sisters also are quick to anger, making it a somewhat hellish existence for Gilbert. Additionally, the food store he works in has been bereft of customers since the new larger chain store opened on the fringes of town. Gilbert works in the store, disabled by the lack of customers and the depression of its owner who is of course concerned about making a living. Gilbert takes time to offer him his ear and some kind words, again offering himself in a caregiver position.

One of the most wrenching scenes comes with Mama’s death and the subsequent decision to “cremate” her by setting the house on fire. Here we seem to see Gilbert rising like a phoenix from the ashes of his prior life and taking back the authority of his own life and destiny. His mother mentions before she dies that he is her “knight in shimmering armor” to which he replies: “you mean shining don’t you?” She tells him no, he shimmers and shines.

Researching for playing the part in “Rain Man” Dustin Hoffman wowed the audience in his rendition of an autistic man and in this movie DiCaprio appears to have studied the mannerisms of mentally challenged young people in order to provide us with a sweet and kind young man. The mother is also a disabled woman who is seen killing herself with food. Darlene Cates weighs 514 pounds, and the entire time I watched the movie I felt uncomfortable FOR her. As she is a genuinely loving character the viewer is only the viewer of in the perceptive reality of being large and trying to live in a thin world.


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    • Aley Martin profile imageAUTHOR

      Alice Lee Martin 

      6 years ago from Sumner, Washington,USA

      thanks ladies. It is a great view!

    • Trish_M profile image

      Tricia Mason 

      6 years ago from The English Midlands


      I love this film and this is a very good review :)

    • Pamela99 profile image

      Pamela Oglesby 

      6 years ago from Sunny Florida

      This is an interesting review of this movie, which I haven't seen. I will see about renting it. Good review,


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