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Despite Weird Stuff, 'Gilbert Grape' Makes a Connection

March 17, 1994|LYNN SMITH | Lynn Smith is a staff writer for The Times' View section.

In "What's Eating Gilbert Grape" a young man whose strongest desire is "to be a good person" sees no escape from the small town where he is trapped caring for his obese mother and mentally impaired brother, until an equally gentle but eccentric young woman passes through. (Rated PG-13)


It takes some maturity to understand, or even be interested in, the deadening effects of long-term sacrifice.

It also takes a little media savvy to get all this film's nuances and symbols, such as cars that won't start and heights that are climbed.

So it's not surprising that kids' appreciation for this mostly adult, lump-in-the-throat drama increased in direct proportion to age.

"It just was weird. It's not the type of movie I usually see," said 9-year-old Heather Peirce, who much preferred "My Girl 2." Heather, who didn't understand the title, gave the movie three out of five stars.

But 16-year-old Ian Davies gave the movie a perfect five out of five stars and thought the title fitting. "They have concepts in the film that make you think what's eating at him. I think his whole life was bothering him. He was ashamed about his family. The girl helped him to see who his mom was and get more open."

Ian went with his two brothers, Carlos, 10, and Jimmy, 13. The brothers regularly see a variety of movies, and this one looked interesting to them--although it's still playing in only a few theaters.

The offbeat family members alone were enough to intrigue some young viewers.

Gilbert, played unsmilingly by Johnny Depp, is one of five children of a father who committed suicide and a mother who consequently gained 350 pounds or so. He works in a mom-and-pop grocery store and is the main protector of his 18-year-old, mentally impaired brother, Arnie. Arnie is a trial, a happy boy who can't stop climbing the town's water tower ("Some days you want him to live," Gilbert says, "some days you don't.") The mother is a town joke--kids dare one another to peek in the window just to see her.

Jimmy was particularly impressed by the scene in which Gilbert's mother leaves her house for the first time in seven years to rescue Arnie from jail, where he has been placed after the latest tower-climbing incident. "The people started looking at her like she was really strange and stuff. I thought the person in the movie was really brave," he said.

Showing this unusual family from the inside out had a simple message for Carlos: "You shouldn't judge people by the way they look."

Jimmy added: "They were just living their life. They were doing what everybody does with their life--working, helping around the house."

Heather was also intrigued in the beginning, before it got too weird. "I just wanted to watch and see what happened to the family because I knew Gilbert had problems."

But her mother thought his problems were too heavy for Heather and ushered her out of the theater before the end.

"I thoroughly enjoyed the movie," said her mother, Bonnie, a third-grade teacher. "But I was uncomfortable with her in there toward the end." Rather than language or the few suggested scenes of adultery, Bonnie was concerned about the treatment of death. "I was thinking of what was going to happen and thought it might be a memory that wouldn't be good."

The youngsters agreed the actors were universally splendid. But they singled out Leonardo DiCaprio, who played Arnie convincingly. Jimmy applauded DiCaprio's Oscar nomination for best supporting actor.

"I think he deserves it. In some parts, I thought this is really a retarded boy."

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