What's Eating Gilbert Grape

Cates, DarleneHallstrom, LasseDepp, JohnnyDiCaprio, LeonardoLewis, Juliette

Primary Category: Performing Arts / Film, TV, Video

Genre: Film

Annotated by:
Wear, Delese
  • Date of entry: Jan-25-1999
  • Last revised: Mar-22-2010


While the film is clearly, unequivocally about families, family relationships, families in crisis--here, as experienced in the Grape family, it is also a film illuminating other human issues in astonishing ways. The family focus is on Momma (Darlene Cates), whose 600-pound frame shakes the rafters of the house in those rare moments she is able to rise; she eats on the sofa (the children bring the kitchen table to her), sleeps on the sofa (a bed is made up there every night), and watches television and her family the rest of the time.

Gilbert (Johnny Depp) is the oldest son who takes care of everyone, especially his eighteen-year-old brother, Arnie (Leonardo DiCaprio), who is mentally challenged in some way and requires constant attention. Two sisters round out the family.

Becky (Juliette Lewis) comes to town in an Airstream with her grandmother--we're never quite sure what they do other than criss-cross the country in Airstream caravans--and changes Gilbert's life from one of resignation to one of possibilities outside the dailiness of caregiving and stocking shelves at the local grocery store. The climax of the story, the death of Momma after Arnie's eighteenth birthday party (he wasn't supposed to live that long), frees each family member in life-altering ways.


I have used this video very successfully with Irvin Yalom's Fat Lady, Pam Houston's Out of Habit, I Start Apologizing, and Rennie Sparks's Skanks (see literature database for annotations); all have to do with the (contemporary, western, white) female body, how it is socially constructed, and the damage done to women and girls in the name of slimness.


Based on the novel by Peter Hedges, who also wrote the film script.

Primary Source