The film What’s Eating Gilbert Grape depicts a family traumatised, to the extent that the shock waves are still reverberating years later. However, it also shows the possibility of rehabilitation from that trauma.
A strong message in the film seems to be that coping means letting out the emotions involved, experiencing the grief, and then moving on. Momma has, we are led to believe, never really openly expressed her horror at what Albert Grape did. She has redirected her grief. She is consumed by her sadness, she is literally eating herself to death. Food for her is comfort, for the love she lost, or fears losing. Gilbert has also repressed his true feelings. He can’t go down into the basement. That, and his closed down state, are the main symptoms of his trauma. Gilbert says nothing. He snipes quietly at Momma, he complains about Arnie, but never tells them how he feels. He plays the martyr, the victim.
When Becky comes to Endora he is led to question how he is living his life. Becky helps Gilbert to see that he is not being true to himself. He is being the person he feels he ought to be. He is trying so hard to be good that he is not somehow fully alive. When he lets out his anger (hitting Arnie and running away), the shock wakes him up emotionally. He expresses his feelings to Becky and accepts her gesture of love. Gilbert makes himself ‘face the music’. He takes risks –he talks, really talks, for the first time in years, to Momma. He even takes the risk of introducing Becky to Momma. Ultimately, he makes the most public gesture possible of his feelings for his mother – in the funeral fire. Becky has helped him out of inertia and helplessness, and into active reassertion of his life. The fire is a declaration of Momma’s worth – a celebration of her life. It erases the house, the death of Albert, the long shame of Bonnie. It is the end of an era, and the start of a new one.
Momma is able to find some peace when she reconcilies with Gilbert. She stopped being the victim who seemed to want Gilbert and the girls to ‘mother’ her. Bonnie is facing what she has become and asking for forgiveness. When Gilbert gives it, and Becky too affirms her worth, she is released from the long years of hiding and insecurity. She is able to take the symbolically important action of climbing the stairs (doing something herself) and going to her own bed for the first time in years.