Contemporary Film Talk: ‘What’s Eating Gilbert Grape’ (1993)

Today we reminisce about

What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993)

Directed by Lasse Hallström

Starring: Johnny Depp, Leonardo DiCaprio, Juliette Lewis, Mary Steenbergen, Darlene Cates

 

* Published specifically for the 2nd Disability in Film Blogathon hosted by Pop Culture Reverie & In The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood *

 

Foreword

It was a great joy to find out that this blogathon was taking place and I signed-up without hesitation. As the day grew closer to submit my contribution, I admittedly got cold feet. I did not know if I was ready to talk about the subject of autism and mental retardation. Two of my children are autistic with one of them also suffering from a difficult case of epilepsy. They usually place on the middle of the autistic spectrum though some days they fluctuate, for better or for worse. My oldest child facing this issue will soon be a teenager while the youngest is slowly leaving toddlerhood. I will not lie in saying that living everyday as a caretaker dealing with these ailments has been easy. There are days when it can be the biggest struggle of your life while other days you feel as if you have a grasp on things. Although I, my husband and two of my children, do not suffer from developmental or neurological disorders, we nonetheless live with these conditions on a daily basis with nearly every aspect of our lives altered by them. Like most people, we are comforted by meeting other families living in a similar situation because they can provide the support and understanding that those looking outside of the box cannot fully grasp.

Growing up, I was familiar with autism having watched Rain Man many, many times. I did not know what to think of the condition when first faced with it and, like many youngsters, laughed at the character of Raymond and made fun of him. A similar reaction occurred when I first watched What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. The character of Arnie was an easy target for the ignorant teenager that I was in those days. From the mid-90’s onward, I had an aversion to films of this nature which lasted quite a few years after the birth of my oldest child with autism. Finally, I decided to sit down and watch Rain Man again after so many years, this time from the perspective of a parent of handicapped children. The experience profoundly moved me because I not only identified with Raymond (vicariously so through my children’s manifestations) but also with Charlie, his older brother and temporary caretaker. This brought me increased acceptance in watching Arnie and the goings-on of his family and community in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. What both of these films achieve is giving a voice to caregivers with autistic dependents so that they can come to terms with the ailments and continue on living with as much normalcy as possible.

After some reflection I realised that I am ready to talk about autism in the context of film and that it will ultimately – and hopefully – bring about a positive outcome. We are all here to write about disability to support one another, not to judge. So without further ado, let’s talk about What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.

Synopsis

The Grape family lives in the rural Midwestern town of Endora, Iowa, where “nothing much ever happens (and) nothing much ever will”. They live in the house built by the late patriarch Albert Grape who resided there with his wife, Bonnie (Cates), and their five children. Since his death, middle son Gilbert (Depp) has taken a large amount of responsibility on his shoulders in being the sole breadwinner as well as keeping his handicapped brother, Arnie (DiCaprio), under his wing. His older sister Amy (Laura Harrington) takes care of the cooking and housework while his younger sister, Ellen (Mary Kate Schellhardt), is busy with high school and her part-time job at the local ice cream store. Eldest brother Larry left Endora some time ago and is neither seen nor heard from on a regular basis.

Bonnie “Mama” is emotionally crippled by the strain of tragedy, notably her husband’s suicide, and has used food as a way to deal with her pain. Thus doing, she has gained so much weight that she has difficulty in her mobility and has not left her home in seven years. She spends most of her time on the couch where she eats, sleeps, socialises, and watches television. Her appearance greatly embarrasses Gilbert and he covers his own hurt about the situation through mockery, allowing children passing by to look in the window to see “the sideshow” then laughing. It is not hard to see that Gilbert is a pretty miserable fellow in this seemingly dead end life. To make matters more complicated, he has been sleeping with Mrs. Betty Carver (Steenbergen), the wife of a local insurance salesman who has strong suspicions regarding their relationship but has no power to really do anything about it. Things start to change for Gilbert after he meets a lovely, worldly young woman named Becky (Lewis) who is in-town waiting for the repair of her grandmother’s RV, in which they were travelling around the country before it broke down.

What first attracts Gilbert to Becky is her beauty though he soon becomes enchanted with stories of her travels and the fact that she represents an existence outside of Endora. His joy in being with her is curtailed when he neglects his familial responsibilities, notably taking care of Arnie, which frustrates him and causes his family to lash out against him. Arnie has a knack for putting himself in dangerous situations, his favourite pastime being climbing up the Endora water tower a little higher each time. Eventually his antics make it so that the police are given no other choice to arrest him, particularly since they have let Arnie and his family off the hook dozens of the times with verbal warnings. This situation forces Bonnie to face her demons in order to help free Arnie as well as making Gilbert evaluate the reality of his life. What occurs in the end is extremely moving and provides uneasy closure though it also gives the Grapes a chance for a brighter tomorrow.

The Grape Family: Arnie, Ellen, Gilbert, Mama & Amy

The Silent Sufferers

Though the title of the film singles out Gilbert from the rest of the characters, he is hardly the sole focus of the story. As Gilbert is our storyteller, we have the opportunity to follow him around in his goings-on and become an adopted member of the Grape family. The version of events we witness is reality and is not just seen through Gilbert’s eyes although there are instances when he will give his personal opinion on something. Arnie’s autism and Mama’s obesity are two strong influences that affect the other Grape siblings but they are not the only ones with issues. Gilbert, as duly noted, is quite unsatisfied as are his sisters. Amy lost her job and now only takes care of the family by cooking meals and attending to household chores. She is probably the person that gives the most attention to Mama by making sure that she is comfortable and taking care of her personal needs. Ellen is generally humiliated by Arnie’s odd behaviour and has a profound lack of patience with him. In essence, she is bothered anytime she must deal with him in public. With Mama, it is less of an issue for Ellen because she never leaves the house though she is aware that everyone in town – especially the kids at her high school – knows all about her family.

Endora becomes even more of a terrible place to be due to the general knowledge of their family history. Gilbert learns that he was lured into an affair with Betty not because she was particularly smitten with him but because she knew he was a sure thing, meaning that he would never leave the town. This saved her the personal effort of looking for a replacement to blind her from her own miserable existence. Luckily for Gilbert, he has a good friend, Tucker (John C. Reilly) who is non-judgemental to his situation and who provides an enormous amount of support. He aids the family in fixing floor beams that have been weakened over time by Mama’s significant weight. His other friend, Bobby (Crispin Glover) lacks sensitivity though he is loyal to both Gilbert and Tucker. When you look at it, there is rarely a moment in Gilbert’s daily life that he does not have Arnie with him. Arnie accompanies Gilbert to work, on deliveries, with his friends, and practically anytime he goes some place. When Gilbert is not there to “look after” Arnie, his sisters get into a frenzy and appear to be helpless, not to mention shocked that Gilbert seemingly abandoned his post. Is it not surprising that Gilbert gradually loses his cool with the situation. Even amongst his family, he is not recognised for his sacrifices or given any amount of understanding that he, too, needs a private life and time off from being a caregiver. The thing is that although his sisters show frustration with Gilbert, they too are in the same boat as him. They never get a break from the constant, demanding lifestyle they lead. Since there is no one to take their place in case they want to take a breather, they wonder why Gilbert should be granted some peace of mind. The result is that there is a great deal of animosity between the children, especially Ellen and Gilbert who constantly fight. Amy is much more passive aggressive in her mannerisms, being less accusatory upfront.

All of this gives an image of a broken household. Assuming this would not be incorrect, especially after witnessing their often disastrous family meals that turn into screaming matches and/or that are constantly interrupted by Arnie putting himself into harm’s way. The fact of the matter is that that everyone in the family is tired, worn down, depressed, repressed, and in need of a change of scenery. Despite these challenges, they do manage to show unity within their family. They support one another when everyone goes in the car to get Arnie out of jail and continue walking with Mama afterwards even when she is treated as a spectacle by sneering onlookers outside of the police station. The most powerful moment is at near the very end of the film when they have to make important decisions, never questioning each other and doing all they can to help.

As for Arnie, he cannot express himself in the same way as his family though his “voice” is definitely heard and his spot in the household cemented. He is generally a happy young man who loves to play “Where’s Arnie?”, is curious about insects, and who especially loves his mother. He is her “sunshine”. There are unfortunately no social-related services available for Arnie such as a Special Education class, psychological treatment, or any sort of day centre, so all of his education is left to the Grapes. This proves to be almost impossible because they are not trained to guide Arnie through life being low-functioning autistic. That being said, they are able to come up with coping mechanisms. For example, in order to get Arnie down from the water tower, Gilbert chants little songs like: “I know a boy whose name is Arnie – He’s about to turn 18 and have a big party” and “Match and the gas tank –– boom, boom!” The one strive for Mama has been to keep Arnie alive and well, so that he (and she) could at least see his 18th birthday. Other than that, there has not been much push to help accompany Arnie in living with autism. This is not said at all in a derogatory fashion because it is not up to them to figure out solutions on this level.

Arnie climbing the water tower … again.

In a better world, the Grape family would receive the help that they all need. Arnie would have been integrated in either a classroom or specialised centre to help with his preconditions. All the siblings would have been relieved of their burden in running the Grape household, preferably receiving counselling to give them an outlet where to express themselves and air out their issues. Mama would have not been left to hide out in her home and gain so much weight, also being given proper support after being so abruptly and devastatingly widowed. Alas, most of this will remain but a fantasy for most families living with autism. There are not enough services and support extended to them on a general, global-level. The large majority of families are left to do the best that they can with the situation with very mixed results. All of this makes the Grape family all the more real for those of us in a comparable situation.

 

Further Thoughts

I came across a really nice article about What’s Eating Gilbert Grape that was written by a man who works as Director of the Autistic Research Centre at Cambridge University. While the entire article was lovely, there was one statement that really stood out to me:

…the film has a powerful message for our society, which remains just as relevant today: that people with autism need huge levels of support, and so do their (often overlooked and forgotten) families.”

As a member of one of these overlooked and forgotten families, I was extremely touched to read this and grateful to been given recognition. It is not easy for anyone who is living with and dealing with autism. Home life can be very chaotic if a certain schedule is not adhered to or if there is a sudden change in plans. Rituals become very important markers in an autistic person’s life and when these events/moments do not happen, it can be the end of the world. This affects everyone’s schedules and more often than not, the non-autistic family members are faced with dwindled opportunities for socialisation and entertainment. In some cases, they may have to give up all other activities, just like in the case of Gilbert Grape. Places that once seemed normal to frequent – grocery stores, restaurants, travel destinations, even family members’ homes – become moderately to completely inaccessible. Everything in your life changes according to the needs and constraints of autism. Sometimes you do adapt well to the changes and it is actually people from the outside that judge you harshly for your way of life, not having a clue as to how it is to live with a handicap. Even those closest to you, including family, can be the culprits of negative and demeaning comments. It is generally not in people’s nature to automatically accept difference; rather, it is something that they have to learn and strive to employ in their usual lives. This includes non-autistic members of a household where there is one or more autistic people residing. None of us are born with a manual on how to deal with this condition. Even for our family, already having one child with autism did not make it easier to deal with another case. There are no two cases of autism that are exactly like one another, just like there are no two snowflakes that are alike.

Life is sometimes impossible with autism. Life is also sometimes the grandest thing that one could ever imagine. Living with a handicap means having many ups and downs, sometimes within one singular day, and having to always been on your guard. Gilbert makes a profoundly frank statement about Arnie at the beginning of the film. He says, “Some days you want him to live. Some days you don’t.” There was really no way else to say it. This was not meant in a cruel way though there are some who will ultimately taken offence to it, which is in their right. The point of the film as well as my own words is not to paint a grim picture of autism but rather to show the true effect that it has on everyone’s lives. More acceptance also means understanding all the challenges, good and bad.

 

 

Some of the cast of ‘What’s Eating Gilbert Grape’ with Swedish director Lasse Hallström.