When a family's father runs out on them, Gilbert (Depp) is forced to prematurely take over his role as man of the house. He works at the local grocer store to support his obese mother and two ungrateful sisters. He also has to look after his mentally retarded 17 year old brother, Arnie.
What's Eating Gilbert Grape? is as odd and funny a collection of cares as ever beset the youthful protagonist of a movie. In the hands of Lasse Hallstrom, the Swedish director of My Life As A Dog, Peter Hedges' quirky script (adapted from his more sardonic novel) is more than sweetly offbeat, without becoming whimsical, cloying or cute.
Poor young Gilbert (Depp, in a vastly charming, sympathetic performance), the rueful narrator hero, is by default the man of the family in a tumbledown house in a vision of Iowa no one could mistake for heaven. He has two feisty sisters and a momma so obese she can't stir from the couch, and works in the small town's failing grocery store where he's expected to deliver more than the groceries to frustrated housewife Mrs. Carver (Mary Steenburgen). And he is, with understandable exasperation, responsible, around the clock, for his rambunctious, severely retarded 18-year-old brother Arnie (DiCaprio, an Oscar nominee for his remarkable, childlike characterisation). Only a temporary visitor in the guise of caravan traveller Becky (Lewis) provides him with a gentle respite from his anxieties and a glimpse of the world beyond Endora, Iowa.
The tale ultimately a subtle but profound examination of responsibility is packed with incident, relationships, good lines and delightful performances (including Crispin Glover as the local undertaker). But what makes it more than an eccentric coming-of-age movie is that Hallstrom is in the tradition of European directors who have so often brought vitality and freshness to slices of American life. He observes details with a heightened reality but also with tenderness, so that the mother who's initially a fat lady joke is revealed as beautiful, troubled and deeply human. And if Gilbert's solution is unrealistically tidy, his troubled but good-hearted perspective is everything Hallstrom needed to pull this enchanting and disarming film together.
With a young DiCaprio nominated for an Oscar after his breakthrough performance here, it was clear he would go on to be a successful actor. Depp puts in a reliable performance as the put-upon son who finds solace in the company of waitress, Juliette Lewis