What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?

It turns out that what’s eating Gilbert Grape (played by Johnny Depp) is his 17 year old younger brother Arnie (played by Leonardo DiCaprio). Arnie has classic autism, which means that life is a constant stress on the whole family, not just for Arnie. Arnie struggles to understand social conventions and social expectations, and therefore just ignores them most of the time, doing his own thing (like wandering off or repetitively climbing the highest building in his small town in Iowa).

The film implicitly raises the question: who has the disability?

But Gilbert, assigned to keep an eye on his vulnerable younger brother, has to worry about Arnie 24/7. When you have a child with autism in the family, there’s not a minute in the day when something unexpected and potentially risky might not happen. Gilbert worries that in small town America, the community may not always be tolerant of those with neurological differences, and that unless he is watched closely, Arnie could be bullied or punished for acting differently. As the older brother, Gilbert feels a strong pull to protect Arnie, filling the role of both parents, since their father died and their mother has extreme obesity that prevents her from leaving the house.

The film implicitly raises the question: who has the disability? Is it Arnie, who has the diagnosis of autism? Or is it Gilbert, whose life is tied to Arnie and who will never be free to be an ordinary teenager? Or is it their mother, whose depression after her husband’s suicide has (we infer) led her to lose almost all motivation in life, giving in to over-eating? Or is it their father, whose depression led him to hang himself in the basement of the family home? We are not told why he hanged himself, but might wonder whether the stresses of coping with a child with autism contributed to this.

“… one view is that Arnie is the least disabled in the family.”

Faced with this range of answers to the question, one view is that Arnie is the least disabled in the family. Most of the time he is seen running around the town, whooping with excitement, or up in his favourite tree laughing loudly, waiting for someone to play hide-and-seek with him (apparently oblivious to the fact that his ‘seeker’ will always know where he is hiding as he hides in the same place every time; and that by laughing out loud, he is effectively informing his seeker of his whereabouts. Psychologists call this ‘mindblindness’, or a difficulty with ‘theory of mind’). Small details amuse Arnie, who laughs as he sticks his finger into the birthday cake that is waiting in the fridge, or as he climbs up the ladder to reach the top of a dangerously high building so that the local fire-brigade have to send out a crane to get him down.

His autism may prevent him from being able to easily understand the social world or make relationships, but it also confers on him an ignorance of how others are feeling, what they are worrying about or what they might think of his unconventional behavior. In this sense, he is blissfully unaware of his disability and it may not impact him. Contrast this to how it impacts his whole family, whose dynamics are tense, nerves being stretched to their limits, the mood of the family swinging from frustration to fear to desperation and occasionally anger.

“It is as good a portrait as Dustin Hoffman’s performance in RAIN MAN.”

I have met a lot of people with autism during my 30 year career as a researcher, including those with classic autism (where the person may have additional learning difficulties, like Arnie) and those with Asperger Syndrome (who may be intellectually gifted). Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance is outstanding, and if I had not known he was an actor and had been shown the film clips out of context, I would have believed this teenager really had autism. It is as good a portrait as Dustin Hoffman’s performance in RAIN MAN. Most importantly, the film has a powerful message for our society, which remains just as relevant today: that people with autism need huge levels of support, and so do their (often overlooked and forgotten) families.

Professor Simon Baron-Cohen is the Director of the Autism Research Centre, Cambridge University.

He was guest speaker at the screening by SciScreen (Cambridge Arts Picture House) as part of the British Association of Science (January 7th 2013).

6 thoughts on “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?”

  1. Not knowing much about autistic behaviour, I was very impressed by DiCaprio’s performance (much more so than in that long film about an iceberg), so I am pleased to learn that it looks convincing to a professional in the field. I failed to notice, sadly, whether a coach is credited with having assisted DiCaprio prepare for the role, but that must have been so, and could not just, I would think, have come from any combination of reading the book, the director, and real footage of similar behaviour.

    Afterwards, in the discussion, some of us were uncertain what exactly had been revealed about Arnie’s (and the other offspring’s) father, but, unless I missed it, I am doubtful that we were told that any hanging took place in the basement. Could that insight have come from the book?

    The house, it seemed to me, symbolized the hindrance that was holding back the four siblings, and its burning the liberation from it (Viking funeral pyres and echoes of Brunhilde) – the fact that the ground-floor joists were inadequate, and that it had been their father’s handiwork, means that they literally inherited a death-trap from him (we overlook, for artistic licence, that, if remedial work in the basement had been necessary, not only would the mother have crashed through to it long before, but also that no silent operation could put things right, as well as that the upper storey must, in all probability, have suffered from the same defect).

    That can be pursued further with the mother’s choosing to become the whale that Gilbert describes her, whom he both loves and hates – her (self-enforced) incapacity to be an active mother has thrown almost all of the responsibility on Gilbert, and, obviously, he resents it, but tries to live with it ad conceal it. Nothing, I think, really to link the mother / whale with Moby Dick, except that Captain Ahab has a similar ambivalence to his quarry / attacker.

    And, if (as I gather from the post-screening discussion) autism can be better prepared for, both for the child with the diagnosis and for his or her carers, then it seems that the mother’s literal inertia when he is so active (tree, water-tower, etc.) means that, even if she could parent him appropriately, she has no means of catching up with him.
    Therefore this liberation from the dead weight that the mother precisely is and from the dangerous structure of the father’s house that seeking to give her dignity in death gives rise to (again, we overlook the fact that, even if it is the siblings’ property, this could still be arson in the UK) provides a resolution for the film, with the two daughters finding their feet, and Arnie and Gilbert ending up where they started a year earlier, but with a reunion.

    1. Hi Apsley! I’ve picked up quite a bit of WEGG knowledge over the years so perhaps I can help a little. DiCaprio was shown a film demonstrating the kind of performance they were looking for – not sure if the film showed an actor or not. He also spent time at school for children with autism and other learning disabilities, and in consultation with an adviser developed Arnie as an amalgamation of all of that research. Johnny Depp helped him practice some of his grimaces in between scenes by making him smell unidentified and malodorous substances in jars.

      In the film, we do get a hint as to the father’s suicide by hanging. When Arnie’s up the tree and Gilbert wants him to go into the basement, he shakes his head gravely and says, “No. Dad’s in there”. Then he goes “Whoo!” and wiggles his fingers in the style of a child miming a ghost, and he also mimes pulling a noose around his own neck and choking.

      I think you’re right that the house was one of many on-screen houses which seem to augment the story as Jungian metaphors or pathetic allegories – from The Money Pit and Paperhouse to Black Christmas!

      I like your references to Brunhilde and Moby Dick. I always loved that WEGG allows us to understand and sympathise with Momma as a woman and mother, and not just an obese tragedy – and that Gilbert’s character shows such conflicting feelings toward her.
      The only thing I don’t like about this film is Juliette Lewis’ dreary two-dimensional turn as Gilbert’s guardian angel (he calls her an angel in the book). I’ve a bugbear about women in film and literature who are just an idealised cipher. Thoughts?

      1. Is Becky (Juliette Lewis) really idealized though ? Sure, all that Gilbert gets – and seems disinclined to refuse – from Betty Carver (Mary Steenburgen) is slightly obsessively crazed sex, but, on that account, he cannot pretend not to know what women are like :
        Would one choose, as one’s ideal, someone who is passing through, even if that woman is nice to be with (in a sort of one-dimensional way that is consistent with Gilbert’s not being exactly scintillating) and maybe confide in ? Probably more like pen-friend material, of the kind where a face-to-face contact can be prolonged by post, I suspect…

  2. With a brother whom has ASD or Autism, I can say that Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance was so raw and real that if I hadn’t have seen “that long movie about a ship hitting an iceberg”, I would’ve thought he had ASD himself. It is so outstanding and beautifully accurate that at times it is sometimes hard to watch. He definitely deserved more recognition than an Academy Award nomination for his role. I think he deserved the damn Oscar!

    Leo also does a fantastic portrayal of Howard Hughes, the eccentric bilionaire in the early years of Hollywood who suffered from OCD, another neurological disorder.

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