A knight in shimmering armour
I stumbled across Lasse Hallstrom’s What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? sometime in early 1999. The circumstances are still quite vivid: arriving back to my empty student house on a Sunday evening, I turned to the Culture magazine of the Sunday Times. The aforementioned film was on the listings for that evening and I can still clearly recall the blurb…
What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993). Johnny Depp. Whimsical drama.
I had never heard of the film but it became apparent later on that it had been well received and Leonardo Di Caprio gained his first Oscar nomination for it. There was nothing else to do, so I turned it on. The following 2 hours forever changed the way I would see, understand and feel about film. A clear separation now exists between the films I loved before and after Gilbert Grape. Films I loved before, such as Armageddon and Con Air have acquired a kind of symbolic status for this changing of the guard.
Before, it was all jump cuts. Kinetic camera movements. Bombastic soundtracks with the emotive slow-motion posturing synonymous with these big action films. Aerosmith on the soundtrack telling us when to cry and the oh-so-profound BIG speech that with absolutely no subtlety reminds us that these are our guys, our heroes. Sure they are rough but underneath it all, well, they care. And they are good. Nicholas Cage and Bruce Willis are those kind of guys. And I lapped it up. Cried when the music told me to. Laughed at the comical sidekick and believed them when they told us they would save the girl/day/world. My friends and I laughed later when we all shed a tear at the big moments, knowing it was all a nonsense but somewhere in the back of our minds there was an inkling that we might just behave in the same way.
All of this changed irreparably with Gilbert Grape. Almost immediately I hated Armageddon.
Gilbert was the first film I cried at simply because I cared deeply about the people on screen. It was moving, not because the music told me it was but because there was a beautiful weaving of lovely, flawed and interesting people showing admirable resilience, grappling with a recent tragedy in a little town full of ordinariness.
Some of the Grape family are themselves quite far from ordinary. Gilbert’s mother weighs around 500 pounds and his brother has a learning disability. Perhaps the most impressive feat of this film is that they demand our sympathy, not our pity. No character is a cypher or plot-point. Each is respected as a fully-rounded, flawed but entirely believable individual. It is to Hallstrom’s eternal credit that he allows these characters their moment in the sun. They don’t just talk. They react and they think. They hope and mourn. They react to each other in complex, contradictory and tender ways.
The film is anchored in a gently sweet and touching performance by Johnny Depp as a young man with too much responsibility thrust on his shoulders at too young an age. The cast are uniformly excellent but they are aided by a screenplay that gives every single character the room and grace to be fully developed and distinctive. It is not a high concept drama. It would be hard to describe the story, if there is one. The film’s true greatness lies in the observation of everyday life. It holds hard and fast to the idea that, in this little town and in the stories of these people, all of life is there. It tells us something of ourselves. How painful life can be and how hard it can be to pick yourself up. How difficult it is to be good when there are pressures from all sides. And how we need each other, warts and all, to help rub our sharper edges off.
The film’s true greatness lies in the observation of everyday life. It holds hard and fast to the idea that, in this little town and in the stories of these people, all of life is there.
Gilbert Grape was the first screenplay by Peter Hedges and it was directed by Lasse Hallstrom, a Scandinavian. Twenty-two years ago they made a film with heart, humour, romance and a little melodrama. I for one am extremely grateful that they did. For there is something heroic about Gilbert. He never bemoans his lot in life. His family lay on him the role of paterfamilias, unwittingly or by necessity, and he fulfils this responsibility with dignity, error and the eventual realisation that he cannot feel sorry for himself or crumble under the burden of it. He becomes a man, coming to understand both what he wants in life and the right way to live it.
“You’re my knight in shimmering armour. You shimmer, and you glow.”