Endura is a stagnating town where locals are drifting out of its boundaries and the dusty roads see little action. It's hardly an inspiring place for a twenty-something like Gilbert who is trapped in a life devoid of any real excitement, surrounded by dysfunctional families either breaking down, or picking up the pieces. His own family is no different with a self-imprisoned mother afraid to leave the house after becoming morbidly obese since Gilbert's father left. He is effectively the man of the house now and his wages from the failing local store help to keep the home running.
His main role isn't that of provider however, he is the role model, father figure, and hero to his brother Arnie. Looking after Arnie is a full time job itself; the young boy is becoming a young man and his special needs mean that he requires constant supervision. It's difficult juggling all his commitments, especially when his family are often blind to the extent of his efforts and perceive him as lazy, perhaps a chance to find time for his own interests exists in bohemian, new-to-town girl Becky. Her introduction leads Gilbert to start thinking about what he wants from life, it's almost as though he didn't realise how bored he'd been, her free-spirted nature removes his blinkers.
What's Eating Gilbert Grape is a whimsical film which could be set in any era, most of that is thanks to the town of Endura which seems to have let modern life pass it by. There's as much comedy as there is personal tragedy in this film which manages to focus on the minutiae of life as well as the hint at the bigger ambitions of the few who dare to dream. Although Johnny Depp is clearly the lead character here and his mild-mannered ways ensures that you want him to find his own happiness, he isn't the most interesting (or developed), instead Arnie is the star of this show and Leonardo DiCaprio steals every scene he is in. This was the first film I saw starring DiCaprio, and I genuinely thought that the film makers had cast an autistic boy in the role - so convincing is DiCaprio's portrayal. The best thing about the performance is that we don't see a condition, we see the boy beneath and he's a refreshingly innocent and multifaceted character. It's a powerful turn for a young actor and I still consider this to be his best role so far, such a great demonstration of talent at a young age.
The other characters feel a little underdeveloped, you do care about them, but as I watched this again recently there doesn't seem to be as much depth to some of them as I remembered there being. The budding romance between Gilbert and Becky is a central part of the story but has little spark. There are some gems however, the frustrated housewife and her husband are brilliantly presented, much of it is done with incredible subtlety - a brief interaction here or a throwaway line there which suggest a much more serious relationship problem simmering away under the surface. If the same level of attention could have been afforded to the full ensemble then the film would certainly have been richer. It's only a small criticism though as the central relationships are still compelling enough to drive the film.
The previous DVD transfer wasn't great (the 2004 release with the blue banner at the bottom), with high levels of grain and digital noise because of it. This 2008 release though seems much more cleaned up. There is still a fair amount of grain - but you can't remove it if it's on the source video, and heavyhanded removal causes a host of other problems. The great cinematography is shown off well with dreary town sets contrasting against the picturesque countryside. Still there's a disappointed lack of extras here.
In a nutshell: Although not perfect, this is still a cracking film with more heart than the big Hollywood studios are usually able to muster. Depp is wonderfully understated and DiCaprio gives once of the best performances I've seen in a film