Last night my son asked me about “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape”. He saw his favorite actor (Depp) was in it and wanted to know if it was a good movie. Having watched it over a dozen times in the early 90s, I told him it was a great movie, both amusing and meaningful. That I often called him (when he was little) my Knight in Shimmering Armor just as Bonnie Grape called Gilbert, “You shimmer and you glow.” Then he pushed play and all the sudden I was watching a different movie.
We play this game similar to “Where’s Arnie” when Gilbert and his sister Amy raise their voices and say, “Have you seen Arnie!?” all while Arnie is obvious in sight and loudly laughing at them in a tree. Our game is Hide & Seek in the house and my tot always ‘hides’ by sticking his head under things and the rest of his body is out. When we say, “Is he in the bathroom?” You can hear him yell, “No! I’m hiding in the lamp!” And we all hide in similar obvious places so we’re easy to find for him. So here I am watching this with my teenager and we both kind of chuckle because it’s the same game. Gilbert’s world revolves around Arnie and little things that he does starts to mimic situations at home.
You see my youngest is autistic and his big brother has played witness to times when people have looked at him differently or said some bad things behind his back. He once remarked to me that he was glad he wasn’t in school with him because he’d never allow anyone to treat him bad and would probably be expelled. They’re 11 years apart and my teen doesn’t often pay as much attention to him as we’d like, but he’s awfully protective. So when the scene comes up when Arnie climbs the water tower and the kids start to push him and make fun of him when he thinks they’re being friendly, I see his jaw clench. The next time Arnie climbs up and the police take him he looks at me and says, “Why did they take him? Don’t they know he doesn’t understand it’s wrong?” He’s upset. I used to find the movie somewhat amusing, a beautifully sad representation of life in a small town. Now I see the movie through his eyes. His little brother doesn’t have disabilities even comparable to Arnie, but he knows many people in the world are just as unforgiving to differences as they are in Endora.
Once I had to explain to him that he couldn’t fight everyone every time they made fun of his little brother’s quirks because although most people see them as cute now, the older he gets the more not cute it’ll become and the more people who will be not so kind. That it’s better to just walk away because those kinds of people won’t change. And I think he saw something of that in the film. Arnie wasn’t an adorable preschooler, he was turning 18 and it was hard him to wrap his head around people being so awful to someone who didn’t understand.
The words from the scene where Gilbert is bandaging Arnie after his sister hits him comes to mind,
What does Gilbert say? If anybody ever hits you… or even just lays a finger on you, what are you gonna do? Arnie?
You’re gonna tell me, and then I’m gonna take care of it for you, right? And why will I take care of it?
Because you’re Gilbert.
Because I’m Gilbert. Because nobody hurts Arnie, right?
It’s easy to forget sometimes what my oldest must be going through or coming to terms with. He has his own problems and his teenage drama life that keeps him secluded away from us most of the time, so I generally don’t see into this window of his concerns towards his brother but in rare moments. He won’t be here after a few years when he moves into adulthood and although he doesn’t have much of a connection with his sibling, he is still bound by his worry about what his life will be like when he is not there. His heart is still heavy with the questions of what the future will bring and how our beaming beautiful sun will stand when faced with all the shadows of the world outside. So he pushes it all away, much like Gilbert does the difficulties in his life.
But at the end of the film Gilbert and Arnie finally find peace and the ability to let go. I hope he sees in this ending that one day he won’t have to worry about those things anymore and he can just be free with his brother and leave behind all the small mindedness of misguided fools. That together they can really go anywhere.