Posted in Film Commentary

Review: What’s Eating Gilbert Grape

 I chose this film for this week because 1) I was in a hurry 2) it was a favorite of mine in middle school and high school but I had never sat down and analyzed it, so I figured going back and actually considering what is REALLY going on in this film would probably be a good idea, you know, because reasons.

            While I can’t really say that this film has a lot going on, due to its setting (fictional Endora, Iowa), there is more going on under the surface than is apparent at first. For now though I will start with the most glaringly obvious bit of this film: Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Becky is a good character, don’t get me wrong, but I can’t say I knew in high school what a Manic Pixie Dream Girl was. Thus, having been enlightened (or jaded, your call) by college, I could not help but notice just how well she fit that stereotype as a character. For approximately the first half hour of the film, all we see of Becky is her popping in and out of shots around town, generally being a pretty pixie that gets everyone’s attention.

 It is as though the film is trying to smack the audience with a two-by-four that reads “SHE’S IMPORTANT, PAY ATTENTION!” without actually giving her anything to do. Her grandmother has better character development at this point than she does, what with showing up the mechanic and all.

Once we do finally get introduced to Becky, she is the super laid-back, humble, understanding, patient, do I even need to go on? There is literally nothing wrong with her. I suppose this isn’t entirely a bad thing, but I do have issues with the way women are written in films (often times, not always, of course). Being someone who does not appreciate the false expectations set up by rom-coms or other love stories in film, to be honest, I’m probably not the best person to be writing about this. However, if you can’t write a female character to be anything except a love interest, you’re doing it wrong.

            End rant, ok. Moving on. This film is, in my mind, the epitome of “slice of life”. That being said, it actually kind of surprised me that I had never noticed before how many scenes have quite literally no transition. This film constantly cuts to a completely different scenario in the blink of an eye, and it works. In most other films this would be jarring and uneasy, but it works for this movie. Due to the “slice of life” nature and thus semi-documentary style, it does not feel we are missing anything by suddenly finding ourselves in a completely different scene. When scene transitions are used, they’re pretty minimal to prevent messing up the previously stated slice-of-life feeling. There are fades to black occasionally, and there is one scene that makes use of fading into another sequence as a montage, but that is about as fancy as it gets.

If this film were to make use of fancy transitions, it would completely destroy the humble, down to earth nature of the film. Another thing that is interesting about the way this film simply cuts to completely different situations is where we are placed in the scene. For most scenarios, we are dropped into a scene in medias res, but we never feel like we’ve actually missed anything. The conversations have almost always already started, but we are only given the meat of the conversation and thus saving time. This is another thing that would possibly make an audience uncomfortable in other kinds of films, but is immensely helpful with this movie and its style.

            Speaking of things this film does not do a lot, there is also very minimal music in this film. Music is used incredibly sparingly, and is only used to heighten emotional scenes. Most films use music as ambient noise, but again, due to the style of this film it would be unrealistic and would disconnect the audience from the film. Thus, the music is always simple, used sparingly, and never too much.

So how is this movie not eerily silent most of the time? There is always some kind of ambient natural noise in the background, like crickets in outdoor scenes or when all else fails, Arnie talking. Not only would having music more often create a disconnect, but it is crucial that Arnie talks as often as he does by character definition, so adding music to this would be too much to process.

            This film is the very definition of minimalist, and the same can be said for the voice-over narration given by Gilbert. Voice-overs are only present in the beginning and the end of the film, simply to establish the setting and the perspective through which we should view the environment. Other than that the film is left open to interpretation relatively free of character bias, aside from hating Ellen. Everybody hates Ellen.

By introducing the story through voice-over from Gilbert, we are being put in his shoes and have a better understanding not just of the environment he is stuck in but also how he views that environment. This would not be all that important, except that throughout the film we are easily able to pick up subtle clues about what Gilbert could really be thinking because of how he felt about his life in the very beginning of the film. Gilbert never addresses his feelings to his family, and very rarely mentions how he feels to his friends, but through facial expressions and other mannerisms, it is easy to tell Gilbert is reaching his breaking point.

            Gilbert’s breaking point is not the end of the film itself, however. This makes the ending to the film bittersweet, as throughout the film we have been lead to believe that Gilbert is a simple man doing all that he can to get by without much support. Thus, after he snaps and the film ends with him making things right with his family, it seems almost backwards. Gilbert was brought to this breaking point due to the lack of appreciation his family had for all he was doing, and yet he snaps once and has to apologize and promise not to hurt them ever again in order to get back in his families good graces. If his sisters and mother had been more supportive and understanding from the beginning, he would not have had reason to snap. I do realize this is a rant, and I digress.

            I find it rather strange that I used to consider this one of my favorite movies. It has glaringly obvious plot holes, mediocre character development, and an idealized view of personal relationships. While I can’t say I hate this movie now, far from it, I am glad I watched it again with critical analysis in mind. I would still recommend this film to kids no older than seventeen, but as an adult making my transition into the real world it did not do much for me.

I could not find my favorite scene online, so I leave you with the trailer:


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