Despite its star power, this 90s classic is often overlooked. Photo: CC, Paramount Pictures.
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Why it’s famous

Serving as the film adaptation of Peter Hedges’ 1991 novel, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape manages to bring a wide range of emotions to the surface. This is thanks, in part, to then-up-and-comer Johnny Depp, who plays a young man dealing with the loss of his father, all while having to take care of his entire family.

Depp’s striking screen presence combined with co-star Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance as his autistic teenage brother, Arnie Grape, have become legendary in their own right and helped launch both actors’ careers into the stratosphere.

Themes like mental health, obesity, identity issues, relationship troubles, friendship, and death are also brought to the forefront thanks to Hedges’ expert screenplay.

All in all, the strong and unpredictable performances from the cast and the heartwarming character development has led this film to stand among the classics of the early 90s.

Why you haven’t seen it

The film boasts an impressive cast which, outside of  DiCaprio and Depp, includes the likes of Juliette Lewis, John C. Reilly, and Mary Steenburgen. Unfortunately, since What’s Eating Gilbert Grape came out in the early 1993, it usually gets buried at the bottom of their respective resumes. As a result, this film often gets unfairly maligned as that “little indie drama” that actors like DiCaprio and Depp starred in before they moved on to “bigger and better things.”

Why it may be tough to get through

The film’s runtime is filled with emotionally charged scenes, and too few comedic reliefs, which might make it difficult to sit through, especially if you prefer movies with an uplifting, happy storyline.

Why you should see it anyway

Gilbert Grape and the characters in his life take on an array of challenges and heavy decision making, elements that are sure to resonate with a large chunk of viewers even today. The movie does a great job of addressing heavy topics that society tends to shy away from, and it challenges popular discourse surrounding mental health and family dysfunction.  

With each character bringing their own unique baggage to the table, you’re sure to find someone to relate to or, at the very least, sympathize with. This movie is no edge-of-your-seat thriller, but it’ll send you on an emotional rollercoaster ride without sugar coating some of the more sensitive issues on display.

Famous lines

Arnie: “Match in the gas tank, boom boom!”

Becky: “Tell me what you want as fast as it comes to you.”

Gilbert: “I wanna be a good person.”

Gilbert: “We don’t really move. I mean, we’d like to, but… my mom is sort of attached to the house. Attached is, I guess, not the right word. She’s pretty much wedged in.”

Fun facts

  • This was the first and only feature film role for Darlene Cates,who played Gilbert’s morbidly obese mother.
  • DiCaprio spent time with mentally disabled teens in order to figure out how to play a character with a developmental disability.
  • At age 19, DiCaprio received his first Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of Arnie Grape


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