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What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?

An intimate and candid peek into the lives of the five people that make up the Grape family is the understated premise of the movie, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (Teper, 1993). However, in a very subtle way, the story leads us along through the winding maze of family dynamics that provide us with an interesting social commentary. With frankness, it reveals the shame, agony, humiliation, confusion and desire for happiness shared by all the family members, and their ability to cope with their personal struggles, make sense of their situation and fight for something better.

The odds seem insanely stacked against them, and this is quietly symbolized in the name of the small, rural town; Endora. Although the movie focuses mainly on Gilbert Grape, The family consists of seven people. The father, who left the family in a tragic and shocking hanging suicide, was a foundational character. The movie uses the symbolism of the father having built the house they are living in to tie the father to the family although he is not there. Moreover, the further symbolism of the house being poorly built with materials that easily deteriorate is very telling of the family’s current emotional state.

The mother too, who is so distraught that in her grief she has imprisoned herself in the house for a period of seven years, and passively abused herself with overeating and inertia to the point of extreme obesity that is rarely seen. Her extreme obesity is a source of much pain and humiliation to the children, although the mother stays detached from the reality of her weight and its affects. There is an older brother, Larry, who left home and found happiness; he is subsequently a symbol of the hope that escape is possible, and that freedom equals happiness. He is absent in every way but in the freedom he symbolizes.

The oldest sister, Amy, takes on the role of mother in the household. She is an interesting character, quietly going about the duties of motherhood, but struggling with ineptitude. Amy and her mother have switched roles in many respects, as Amy makes dinner, serves her mother, puts her to bed, encourages her gently and provides love and affection. However, she always defers to her mother as the major decision-maker, and steps back down into the role of sister/daughter when she fails at a mothering role task. Gilbert is the next sibling in the family hierarchy and plays the role of father/big brother.

His major task in the family is the care and keeping of his younger brother Arnie, who is moderately mentally handicapped. The movie focuses primarily on the dynamic relationship between these two brothers. Gilbert also works to provide for the family at the solitary, and unfrequented grocery store in their small town. The loyalty of Gilbert’s character is reflected both in his tender and vigilant care of his brother, and in his loyalty to the unsuccessful store as opposed to going to work for the larger, locally popular and more successful store in a nearby town. In the family Gilbert is largely

unnoticed and unappreciated for the tremendous amount of work he shoulders taking the responsibility of his brother. However, he is always called upon for help when there is a problem. Also, very symbolic is his never-ending, daily fight to keep the rickety, old house in good repair, always just barely one step away from watching the house his father built turn to rubble before his eyes. The relevance here is very powerful. Arnie, the mentally handicapped brother, is almost eighteen and very well cared for and loved by the entire family. He is the source of many problems, but also provides a genuine reaction to the problems in the family.

The significant moments of family history, whether tragic or building, are not wasted on Arnie. The youngest sister, Ellen, is just fifteen and very self-absorbed. She is the most verbal in showing her animosity towards her family situation. Interestingly, she sticks with her family in times of trouble although she wants desperately to have nothing to do with them. Although the family appears to be made up of several different people, all with their own sets of problems, the core dilemma of all the characters is the struggle of loyalty to the family, and desire for freedom from the family.

The movie presents these two opposing dilemmas most clearly by focusing on Gilbert. Gilbert fights with the duality of his situation in various ways. While he is intensely loyal to the small shop, he is also having a sexual relationship with an older, married woman. He seems almost ambivalent about the relationship, not wanting it in the first place, but trapped and unable to get out; much like his life situation. Through the course of the movie, he is forced to interact with a tourist in town, a girl his own age, with whom he eventually falls in love. The girl, Becky, is symbolic of freedom and life outside of Endora.

At one interesting junction in the movie he is forced to choose between the girl, and the unwanted mistress. At the same time he is also forced to choose between shopping at the small store where he works and loyally shops, or going to the large super mart in the nearby town to buy an emergency birthday cake for Arnie. He chooses the girl and the super mart, which twists the loyalty issue. Did he betray his loyalties in making choices that were best for him? Moreover, it is obvious to all members of the family that change needs to occur, even Arnie. However they all seem trapped in their circular thinking and inability to move forward.

Family communication is strained, no one wanting to push the already overstressed family too far, and family members just tolerate their horrible situation in silence. But with a lack of problem solving skills, and more stress than family members are able to bear, tension from anger and imprisonment are released with violent interactions and despondency. With a family history of suicide, passive-aggressive behavior, violent outbursts and hopelessness, it is no wonder the family life is set and lived out in a dilapidated old house far from any opportunity. This is reflected so powerfully in the name of their town; Endora.

As the movie begins to close, however, the characters find strength to make very seemingly small changes that have great impact. The mother, so completely inert that she doesn’t even leave the couch to go to bed, actually climbs the stairs to her bedroom. After a realistic look at herself and what she has become she apologizes to her children and finds the strength to make the first step in changing the family; she climbs the steps to her room. Gilbert has spurred this change in her, by leaving the house in anger one night, after beating the brother he has carefully protected for so many years.

When he returns, she tells him he was wrong, and that he had frightened her by leaving, as his father had done. But she points out that he was not his father. He came back. His love for the family was evident. This revelation seems to free her from her bondage and inspires her to start making changes. Tragically, the struggle to the top of the stairs ends in her death. But her death is a rebirth for her family. Holding on to the loyalty they so carefully wove between themselves over the years, they are able, with their mother’s release, to be released themselves.

They each find hope in the future, away from Endora, without letting go of each other. The movie itself, was soft spoken, yet powerful. The social commentary was frank and candid as it dealt with huge issues that are in a way, shared in some way or other, by society as a whole. But as the characters left at the end of the movie, each ready to make life something better than what they had known, the message of hope, even in a world that is far from perfect, was crystal clear. REFERENCES Mier ,Teper, Hallstrom, Lasse, 1993. What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.

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