What's Eating Gilbert Grape - A Film Story With Beginning, Middle, and End Major Plot Points

“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 story happens when Gilbert decides to leave Arnie alone to bathe (something which he should never do: leave Arnie alone) in order to spend the afternoon with Becky. This results in Arnie remaining in the bath until Gilbert finds him there hours later on that evening. Gilbert’s growing interest in Becky is the other option that is explored in terms of the premise in the latter half of Act II. The remainder of Act II intensifies as the disparity between Gilbert and the rest of the Grapes escalates. Gilbert repeatedly forgets about Arnie (hence Arnie is able to climb the water tower again) as he becomes more enthralled with Becky. Being torn between the girl and the family drives Gilbert to a point of frustration and violence that he assaults Arnie and drives off, leaving us with the fear that he may be gone for good. Additionally, Arnie runs away to Becky’s camper and the Grape sisters go after him. There is a scene where Gilbert, having driven off, stops and watches over all the commotion he has caused (the sisters find Becky and Arnie just in time). At this moment, Gilbert realizes his significance to the family’s existence (he is their strength and hope) and that he needs them just as much as they need him. The next day, the day of Arnie’s birthday party, Gilbert returns to reconcile with his family (this is the turning point of Act II).

In my view, “What’s eating Gilbert Grape” is a story of coming of age. Although Gilbert is torn between Becky and the family, these forces themselves never conflict but rather, create conflict in the mind of Gilbert Grape. In the end he reconciles both and in a way is able to keep both, the kind of happy ending we wish could be true and the film makes rather believable without being pretentious. In Act III Gilbert introduces Becky to his mother, something he has never done before. At this moment, his shame of her is dissipated. Furthermore, when Momma dies and he decides to burn the house with her inside (quite the opposite of the scenario when he gives the kids a boost up to the window to peek at her) it is an act of love and sacrifice to see her pass on without shame or obtrusion.

While small emergencies are a natural state in the world of Gilbert Grape, one gets the impression that not much has or will change for the Grape family of Endora. Although Gilbert consciously (overtly) does not have a strong goal, the idea of life beyond Endora does cross his mind. This thought materializes, so to speak, into Becky, the girl who rides with the campers and stops for a little while in Endora. Her arrival pulls Gilbert away from his family for the first time and makes him question his needs and desires for his family versus those for himself, “what do you want for yourself,” she asks (evoking a polar quality: the free spirit as opposed to Gilbert who is bound by his family and the small town). The goal of the film, then, is an advocacy for change, which furthers growth, and for Gilbert to embrace these changes without loosing his identity (i.e. partially his family).

Gilbert, who appears to be around 21 years old, hangs out with other guys his age, drinking coffee and making small talk and quizzing his friend Bobby about the undertaking business. On his delivery rounds for the grocery store, he makes frequent stops at the home of Mrs. Carver, a lonely housewife who is always much less lonely after Gilbert's visits. At home, Gilbert oversees his two younger sisters; the household runs according to rituals, and for some time the kitchen table, with dinner on it, has been brought to Momma so that she won't have to go to it. His major duty, however, is watching over Arnie who is troublesome and yet lovable. Clearly, at first, Gilbert is Arnie’s protector (he says early in the film, “no one hurts Arnie”). Although Gilbert seems somewhat content with his role, we sense that he is getting tired of it (hence, possibly his relationship with Mrs. Carver is a subconsciously motivated act for some excitement). Psychologically speaking, Gilbert has a shadow as the reluctant “man of the house.”

Then a young woman named Becky arrives in town, in an RV driven by her grandmother. They're on vacation, traveling from nowhere to nowhere, and they pause in Endora long enough for Becky and Gilbert to begin a romance. This romance acts as a catalyst for the Grapes, breaking the patterns that might have held them for a lifetime. Gilbert, for the first time, becomes forgetful of Arnie, leading to the boy’s arrest (he climbs the water tower) and leading to Momma’s having to leave the house to get him herself. Having invigorated herself, Momma also ventures up the stairs to get to her bedroom. When Gilbert brings Becky to meet Momma, we sense a tension and an excitement that is breaking the pattern of years. In that moment, Gilbert proves that he is no longer ashamed of Momma. By the end of the film, Gilbert has evolved into “the protector” of the family (not just Arnie), symbolized by the burning of the house with Momma dead inside (he leaves her some dignity).

The two main secondary characters are Arnie and Becky. They are the relationships through which Gilbert explores his options (the premise: stay or flee/family: prison or not a prison). Essentially, Gilbert is a caring person and we see that in his treatment of others especially Arnie. Arnie is Gilbert’s strongest tie to the family and probably the reason why he hasn’t fled Endora, as did the eldest Grape brother (the one we never meet). It seems like Momma suffers the loss of her “men” after a certain point (the father, the eldest son, is Gilbert next to abandon her?). Additionally, Arnie is also quite a troublemaker: he repeatedly climbs the water tower; the outburst at the dinner table, etc. Arnie is also a challenge to Gilbert that ultimately reinforces his love for his family, although he doesn’t take it seriously and neither does the film.

The character of Becky is the free-spirited girl whom Gilbert is drawn to and offers him a romance that is genuine in affection. Becky is a potential way out of the mundane life of Endora, yet, she makes it seem that it is quite reasonable for one to stay put in Endora, “it’s as good as anywhere,” she says. Although Gilbert abandons his responsibilities at times, his relationship with Becky, in the end, motivates him to appreciate his family (he extends his family to her by introducing her to Momma). It is interesting that this free agent also becomes a force for the family. The film, in essence, is very pro-family.

One of the movie's best qualities is its way of looking at the fat mother and the retarded brother with sympathy, not pity. We see that the mother is fat, but we see many other things, too, including the losses and disappointments in her life, and the ability she finds to take a grip and make a new start. The film has combined everyday life, carefully observed, with a sense of comedy and romance, which makes it very rare.