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© Birgit Wolz
Occidental, CA, USA



Therapeutic Movie Review Column

By Birgit Wolz, Ph.D., MFT


What's Eating Gilbert Grape

Director: Lasse Hallström
Producers: David Matalon , Bertil Ohlsson , Meir Teper
Screenwriter: Peter Hedges (adapted from his 1991 novel of the same title)
Cast: Johnny Depp , Juliette Lewis , Mary Steenburgen , Leonardo DiCaprio , Darlene Cates , Laura Harrington , Mary Kate Schellhardt , Kevin Tighe , John C. Reilly , Crispin Glover , Penelope Branning , Brady Coleman
MPAA Rating: PG13
Year of Release: 1993


The movie opens in the small fictional town of Endora in Iowa, where Gilbert Grape, the narrator of this story, and his developmentally disabled younger brother Arnie engage in a yearly ritual: They watch trailers drive through town.

Contrary to this idyllic first scene, emergencies are a natural state in the brothers' small but eventful world. Their mother Bonnie weighs 500 pounds after years of depression following her husband's sudden death. She spends days and nights snacking while sitting on the sofa in the family's living room. Bonnie has not left the house in seven years. Local children sneak up to the Grape house to stare at the fat lady. Gilbert sometimes helps by giving them a boost up to the window. Scenes like this give the viewer the impression that the film recognizes the family's problems, but doesn't take them with tragic seriousness.

Because Arnie enjoys heights, he often tries to climb to the top of the local water tower when he is unsupervised for some time. The relationship between the brothers is of both care and protection. Gilbert continually enforces the "nobody touches Arnie" policy.

With Bonnie unable to care for her children and herself, Gilbert has taken responsibility for making money, repairing their old farmhouse, overseeing his two quarrelsome younger sisters Amy and Ellen, andlooking after Arnie. The household appears to run according to well-rehearsed rituals. The sisters do some chores and the cooking. The kitchen table, with dinner on it, gets brought to Momma, because it is difficult for her to get up from the couch.

Gilbert works as a delivery boy in the small, outmoded grocery store where few Endorans shop since a big, modern supermarket, FoodLand, has come to town. He also makes "very special" deliveries to Mrs. Betty Carver. "Go outside and play right now," Betty says to her two small children when her lover comes over. She looks forward to their meetings, but Gilbert begins to grow bored with this affair.Everything in Endora bores the young man until flirty and diffident Becky comes to town. The girl and her grandmother are stuck when their SUV pulling an Airstream trailer breaks down during their annual trip through Endora. In her presence, Gilbert begins to awaken from his slumber of self-denial.

The young couple's love acts as a catalyst for the Grapes, breaking old patterns. Becky becomes emotionally close to both brothers. She begins to unlock buried hopes, dreams, and happiness in them. When Gilbert brings Becky to meet his mom, excitement arises in the whole family.

But Gilbert's life circumstances threaten to get in the way of their budding romance. In order towatch the sunset with Becky, he leaves Arnie alone in the bathtub. Gilbert returns home late and wakes up the following morning to find his brother shivering in the now freezing bath water. His guilt is compounded by his family's anger about the neglect. From then on, Arnie refuses to get near water, adding to the many problems Gilbert faces.

One day, Becky and Gilbert are deeply involved in one of their conversations, when they realize that Arnie is no longer with them. He has climbed the water tower again, and this time he succeeded in reaching the very top. After being rescued, the boy gets arrested. With much effort and determination, his motherrises from her couch, walks to the police station, and demands her son's release. On the way, she becomes the object of pointing, laughing, photo taking, and gawking from the townspeople. But it appears as if she is able to make a new start.

Soon after Arnie's return, Gilbert attempts to get give him a bath. But the boy is furious and tries to run away again. Out of frustration and because he discovers that Arnie had eaten the birthday cake before his party, Gilbert snaps and repeatedly slaps him across his cheeks. Guilty and appalled at himself, he drives away in his old truck without another word. In shock Arnie leaves the house to find Becky, who takescare of him.

Gilbert returns home during Arnie's 18th birthday party and apologizes to his family. The brothers share a special moment of emotional closeness.

Following the party, Bonnie walks upstairs to her bedroom. For the first time in years she sleeps in her bed. Arnie tries to wake her the next morning, at first thinking that she is just playing, and discovers she is dead. Because they do not want their overweight mom to be made fun of at a funeral, the siblings ignite the house after carrying their belongings outside, leaving Bonnie's body with the couch she had spentthe past few years on inside.

One year later, Gilbert and Arnie are looking out on the long road to watch the trailers come through again. Like in the first scene, Arnie chases them, arms flailing. Both are happy when they see Becky is returning on one of the trailers.

Cinema Alchemy

Marla, a woman in her mid twenties, appeared nervous when we met for our first session. She started therapy to gain clarity about her feelings about her fiancé Roy. Marla was surprised when he had recently asked her to marry him. She didn't know why she regretted this response later.

My attempt to help her understand the reasons for this regret triggered more insecurity in Marla. When I brought this reaction to her attention, she said, "I believe I feel insecure because I'm not sure that you can really understand me. But maybe I just feel this way because I have never been in therapy before." She thought that she was different from most people, including her fiancé and me. When I invited her to tell me more about this belief, Marla first hesitated. Eventually she revealed that she felt embarrassed because she had grown up in a family and a neighborhood that some people label "white trash". Now she looked even more nervous and seemed almost ready to get up and leave.

In order to help Marla become more comfortable, I shifted my focus away from her process by asking whether she knows of a movie that shows some of what she had experienced when she grew up. She was surprised to hear a question about a movie in a therapy session and started speaking more freely. She told me that several aspects of What's Eating Gilbert Grape reflect the world of her childhood.

When I encouraged Marla to talk about this film, her hesitation diminished even more. She appeared almost relaxed when she talked about the character Bonnie. "This mother makes food the focus of her life, ignoring her children most of the time," she said. I asked whether this reminds her of an experience in her own life. Referring to Bonnie helped my client talk about her own mother who had neglected her when she grew up. Watching her mom overeat had triggered a period of anorexia for Marla during her teenage years. She wanted to prove to herself that she was in control of her eating. "I didn't want to fall for an eating addiction too," she said.

When I reflected back her comments, Marla continued to open up. "I was scared when I saw this movie for the first time", she said. "There are many similarities between the Grape family and mine. I thought that it was normal to live as we did. But when I watched the movie, I wondered whether something was wrong with us. Sometimes I still think this way." Watching the film had made Marla look at her family life from an observer perspective.

Slowly Marla understood why she questioned her engagement with Roy. Given her socio-economic background, she was not sure whether she could be happily married to a man who grew up in an upper middle class family. Besides, she knew that her mom wanted her daughter to get married close to where she lived and where Marla grew up. My client could not imagine disappointing her. Although Roy respected his future mother in law and liked her wedding ideas, Marla struggled with shame in regards to the location as well as her obese mom's appearance at her big day. "Roy does not understand how I feel about this and I don't know how to tell him", she said.

Marla agreed to my suggestion to watch What's Eating Gilbert Grape together with Roy because this experience might open a door for a conversation about her concerns. During her next session, my client appeared relieved. Referring to movie scenes and characters helped Marla let go of her inhibitions. She explained her fears to Roy. Because she believed that he understood her now, he was able to reassure his fiancé.

In our subsequent sessions we used mostly cognitive restructuring techniques until Marla was able to let go of her concerns completely and became excited about their wedding plans.

Theoretical Contemplation

What's Eating Gilbert Grape facilitated the therapeutic process for Marla in two ways.

Initially, talking about this movie helped her to ease into the therapeutic relationship with me. Clients often become curious and more relaxed when I start talking about a movie, especially if they don't expect this approach. Rapport develops faster because movies speak a language they are familiar with. This can be less intimidating than psychological terms and the direct focus on the client's therapeutic process.

Later in our work, watching the film together improved the communication for Marla and Roy. A film can introduce understanding through readily grasped images. The movie serves as a metaphor, and therefore represents feelings and ideas that a client had trouble putting into words.

Questions for Individual Clients

•  Do you know of a movie that shows aspects of the problem that you are struggling with?


•  Do you know of a film that shows some of what you experienced when you grew up?

Guidelines and Questions for Couples

•  Watch the prescribed movie and talk with each other about the scenes or characters that touch you most.

•  Why do you think these scenes or characters have an impact on you?

•  What can you learn from these discoveries to improve your relationship?


Birgit Wolz wrote the following continuing education online courses:

Cinema Therapy - Using the Power of Movies In the Therapeutic Process, which guides the reader through the basic principles of Cinema Therapy.

Cinema Therapy with Children and Adolescents - This course teaches Cinema Therapy with young clients. It includes numerous movie suggestions, which are categorized according to age and issues. It serves therapists, teachers, and parents.

Positive Psychology and the Movies: Transformational Effects of Movies through Positive Cinema Therapy - This course teaches how to develop clinical interventions by using films effectively in combination with positive psychotherapy. It serves for mental health practitioners and anybody who is interested in personal growth and emotional healing.

Therapeutic Ethics in the Movies - What Films Can Teach Psychotherapists About Ethics and Boundaries in Therapy, which covers: confidentiality, self-disclosure, touch, dual relationships and out-of-office experiences (i.e., home visits, in-vivo exposures, attending a wedding, incidental encounters, etc.)

Boundaries and the Movies - Learning about Therapeutic Boundaries through the Movies, which covers informed consent, gifts, home office, clothing, language, humor and silence, proximity and distance between therapist and client, and, finally, sexual relations between therapist and client.

DSM: Diagnoses Seen in Movies - Using Movies to Understand Common DSM Diagnoses.

Psychodynamic Diagnostic Manual (PDM) - A New Approach to Diagnosis in Psychotherapy