“What’s Eating Gilbert Grape”
“What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” is organized in the three-act structure, as is classical film story with a beginning, middle and end including major plot points. Where so many characters in film will flee from one form of (supposed) imprisonment or another, the synergy and narrative flow of parts in “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” enables us to transition from the idea that the family is burdensome (a type of prison) to that of the family is necessary and meaningful (not imprisoning) through the eyes of Gilbert Grape. Early in the film we learn that Arnie Grape is mentally challenged and soon turning 18. It has been held by the town’s doctors that he should have long since died due to his handicap. The plot of the story then is that of Arnie’s turning 18 years old. At the heart of the film is Gilbert Grape, Arnie’s protective older brother. Unlike the eldest of the brothers, who has left the small town of Endora where they live, and the long since dead father Albert Grape, Gilbert is alive and around, although with a subdued sense of malaise, to share most of the family burdens, like watching over Arnie and taking care of their 500-pound mother. In the small but eventful world of Gilbert Grape, emergencies are a natural state and although he could potentially head off, as did the eldest Grape, Gilbert remains and struggles to be happy with the family that he has which is the premise of the story. We join the story at its critical moment (the beginning of Act I) while Gilbert and Arnie are awaiting the campers that pass through their town every year, but never stop. But this time an RV breaks down and has to pause in the town of Endora, long enough to start a romance between Gilbert and Becky, the girl with which it brings. It will be a romance that brings great changes for the Grape family. Also a part of Act I is the catalytic event of the story, which happens when Arnie climbs to the top of the water tower and Gilbert convinces him to come back down. At this point, we learn that without Gilbert around, Arnie becomes a threat to himself. Additionally, it is the moment when Becky (the girl from the RV) first encounters and becomes enchanted with Gilbert and Arnie. This brings us to the turning point of Act I (the first major plot point), which happens at the dinner table as the family squabbles over duties for the coming birthday party, leading to an outburst by Arnie repeatedly shouting out that “Dad’s dead.” We know, for all their resiliency, the Grape family is a dysfunctional one and that they seem stuck in a rut in Endora. Essentially, the relationship that articulates the premise of the story (the character layer) is that between Gilbert and Becky, the new girl in town. Becky, along with campers that pass through the town every year, represent a means of getting out of Endora, the only means it seems. Being with Becky, Gilbert seems to be exploring a new frontier, a love interest, which takes him away from the sometimes-burdensome family life (e.g. he leaves Arnie alone to bathe while he spends the afternoon with the girl). In Act II, the dramatic tension between Gilbert and the rest of the Grape family intensifies. It is a problem to have a mother so fat she never leaves the house and when kids from the neighborhood sneak around to peek at the fat lady in the living room, Gilbert sometimes gives them a boost up to the window. The changes that happen in the town (e.g. his boss, who runs the local grocery store, is under threat from the big new supermarket on the edge of town) parallel those happening within the family (is Gilbert being lured away from the family?). The premise intensifies as Arnie becomes almost impossible to live with (he climbs the water tower again and is arrested) while Gilbert spends more time with Becky (neglecting his little brother) culminating in Momma, for the first time in seven years, leaving the house to retrieve her son from prison herself. The midpoint of the...
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