Thomas Bezucha's first film signals that he could be a filmmaker worth keeping an eye on, as Big Eden is a huge cut above the usual gay/lesbian independent fare that shows primarily at film festivals and small arthouses. Termed a "fairy tale" (Bezucha's double entendre is intentional), Big Eden takes place in a fictional small town in the heart of Marlboro country in Montana, about the most unlikely place for an upbeat gay themed story to occur.
Successful artist Henry Hart (Arye Gross) has been living a solitary life in Brooklyn for nearly 20 years until he gets a phone call that summons him back to his childhood home to care for his ailing grandfather who raised him. We find out that a major reason that Henry left Big Eden was to escape his best friend and unrequited love interest Dean Stewart (Tim Dekay), who has since married and divorced and now has custody of his two sons. Both show trepidation, but obvious feelings remain after the many years. But can anything develop from this love?
Both Henry and Dean have remained closeted, and Henry hasn't even come out to his understanding grandfather Sam (George Coe), who already "knows" and gives Henry opportunities to reveal his secret sexuality openly. While he has trouble opening up to Sam, Henry has obviously confided with teacher friend Grace (Louise Fletcher) and may stay on in Big Eden to teach art.
Meanwhile, shy Onodaga owner of the town's general store, Pike Dexter (Eric Schweig), finds himself falling in love with Henry. Another closet case, Dexter takes up gourmet cooking to gain daily contact with Henry but has his own issues of acceptance to deal with.
The plot resolves itself predictably as a true fairy tale with the people of idyllic Big Eden surprising supportive of alternative lifestyles, but the strength of the film lies outside of the plot.
Producer Jennifer Chaiken got behind Bezucha's screenplay and found resources to fund the film that make it surpass typical films of this nature. For starters, the project invested heavily in Production Design by getting Stephanie Carroll (The Ice Storm and Runaway Bride) for the project. Of course the mountainous scenery brings natural beauty, but note some of the details of the set, like the humorous "Bait and Beer" sign on the Dexter store refrigeration unit. Not only does Carroll create magnificent set-pieces for Big Eden's Glacier National Park locations, but her reputation helped attract other established film talent to the project.
Gross does credible work as the leading actor in the ensemble cast, but the strength of the numerous character actors gives the illogical tale substance. Give credit to first time director/writer Bezucha for casting strong actors and allowing them to improvise their scenes a great deal. The actors add depth to their characters that will not be apparent if you just read the screenplay. On a side note, credit the actors who plunge into the lake a lot of courage. Big Eden was filmed in October during a three-week shoot, and the lake at Glacier National Park is absolutely freezing at that time of year!
After a shaky New York location start with an awkward sounding Mary (Veanne Cox) expressing dismay at Henry heading west the day before his big art show opening and with a "lazy" phone silence to bridge the grandfather connection, the film picks up markedly with Louise Fletcher's appearance. In stark contrast to her bitchy Nurse Ratchet role, Fletcher plays the kindly supportive friend that Henry can rely on, and her screen presence lends solidity to the entire cast with every small gesture she makes. Incidentally, Bezucha actually wrote the part with Fletcher in mind because he loved her character in Brainstorm, and through connections she read the Big Eden part and agreed to do the project.
Experienced Native American actor Schweig (most notably Uncas in Mann's The Last of the Mohicans) grows on you during the film, at first appearing literally as a wooden Indian but loosening up as the story progresses but remaining true to his closeted character. Again it's the subtle touches that demonstrate his acting ability, like the time he deftly re-arranges the vegetable tray without a word to bring a titter to a gay friendly audience.
The characters who hang out at Dexter's store all day long reading, conversing, and anticipating the soap opera plots of the town are not exactly realistic, but they provide comic relief by supporting the gay store owner's efforts to reach out to the returning artist. Especially notable is the large, but sensitive presence of Jim (O'neal Compton), whether he's fishing the lake to catch the entre for Dexter's latest culinary creation or encouraging him to go after his man. Compton may be the biggest physical presence in the film, but the experienced cast of character actors elevates Bezucha's first screenplay and makes the film work far better than most gay themed films that play only in gay and lesbian film festivals or in limited arthouse release.
The plot relies on re-treaded fairy tale themes of seeking happiness, acceptance, and love but the improvisational acting allows the stereotypical characters to wring the most out of the script and presents some people to care about. Don't expect any explicit sexual scenes, however. Big Eden focuses on relationships and creates a feel good fable that you won't find in ordinary Montana life.
Just the fact that Bezucha was able to get his lifelong dream off the ground in such a spectacular debut can inspire fantasies for other aspiring independent filmmakers, as he had been working as an executive for Polo/Ralph Lauren. It may seem a minor miracle that he was able to get the rights to some 62-minutes worth of country music with the studios realizing the nature of his film, and that the National Park Service was so cooperative as well.
The film is no In and Out that will play to crossover multiplex audiences, but it�s enjoyable fare for gay friendly audiences, and it even played to some approving locals near its Montana origins. Big Eden deservedly won the audience award at both the New York City and San Francisco gay/lesbian film festivals in 2000 before opening wider in the fall of 2001.