Written and Directed by Thomas Bezucha — 2000, US — 117 minutes, color, aspect ratio 1.85:1 widescreen — Comedy / Drama
IN BRIEF, a heartfelt, beautifully-crafted gay romance set in a small Montana town.
Imagine a community where people genuinely care about each other, and matchmaking is a more popular pastime than TV. Imagine that they live in a place of breathtaking natural beauty. Imagine that gay people are completely accepted, and the biggest fear isn’t homophobia or gay-bashing, but finding the right person to love and share a full life with. Now imagine that this is all in a really good film, beautifully-crafted and free of smarminess, and you’ll have some idea of why Big Eden is so special… and popular.
First-time screenwriter/director Tom Bezucha, a former executive at Polo/Ralph Lauren, made his breakthrough into film when he found an enthusiastic producer in Jennifer Chaiken for his original screenplay, Big Eden. After a lengthy location shoot in the wilds of Montana, followed by the difficulty of finding a distributor for a gay film without any onscreen sex (this is the first gay movie rated PG-13), Big Eden went on to find an enthusiastic audience of both movie lovers and critics. It won fifteen audience awards for best picture at gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transender (GLBT) film festivals around the country, and was included on several top ten lists from both GLBT and mainstream critics. It’s also the film from last year which my friends most enthusiastically recommended. And now, having seen it on DVD, I know why.
Big Eden draws some of its inspiration from the classic romantic comedies of the 1930s and ’40s, in particular the work of Frank Capra, although it feels closer to the spirit of It’s a Wonderful Life than the screwball comedy It Happened One Night. Big Eden tells the story of successful New York painter Henry Hart (played with depth and just the right degree of jitteriness by Arye Gross of the TV series Ellen and Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report) who returns to his tiny Montana hometown of Big Eden to care for his ill grandfather.
Henry finds that also just returned to town is the recently-divorced Dean Stewart (Tim DeKay of If These Walls Could Talk). Dean is the sweet, ruggedly handsome guy for whom Henry has been carrying a torch – the size of the Statue of Liberty’s – for twenty years. And now Dean can’t seem to keep his hands off his “old friend” – much to Henry’s shock… and delight.
Into this emotional mix comes the intriguing Pike Dexter (Eric Schweig of Last of the Mohicans), a Native American of few words and deep feelings, who has been pining for Henry as long as Henry has been in love with Dean. Understanding ‘the way to a man’s heart,’ Pike cooks Henry and his grandfather some of the most mouthwatering delicacies seen since Babette’s Feast. But he is too painfully shy to tell Henry what he feels. Or even that he, and not the delightful busybody Widow Thayer, is the one cooking up a storm.
Henry, Dean, and Pike provide the story with at least a half dozen major plot twists. And they develop in ways which are quirky and surprising, but also psychologically honest.
The other major “character” is a collective one: the almost magically un-homophobic community of Big Eden itself. In this tiny pastoral utopia, what you are doesn’t matter nearly as much as – in the words of its creator Tom Bezucha – “generosity of spirit, respect and kindness.” In Big Eden a lesbian couple can kiss unself-consciously on the street, and everyone has their neighbor’s best interests at heart… regardless of their sexual orientation. As if that’s not good enough, Big Eden is situated in a place of breathtaking beauty, near the shore of a vast, shimmering lake, surrounded by a towering pine forest and majestic snow-capped mountains. And those are not digital effects: Big Eden was made on location at Montana’s Glacier National Park.
Technically, the film is well-crafted on all levels. Crisp editing, glowing cinematography, effective but unobtrusive design (notice how Native American art is subtly introduced in the New York City prologue, preparing us for what is to come in Big Eden), and an eclectic use of music, from foot-stompin’ country & western classics to Joseph Conlan’s evocative original score. Conlan’s music was a highlight of the film, eschewing schmaltzy “romance” scoring (think violins and piano) for a fresh sound reflecting Native American influence, using flute and percussion.
One of the film’s most heartbreaking moments comes the first time that Henry catches sight of Dean after many years. They are in church, surrounded by the community – and Dean is with his two rambunctious young sons. The camera becomes Henry’s point of view, as it slowly zooms in for a close-up on a tiny green leaf caught in Dean’s hair: nature entwined with desire. The plaintive flute melody perfectly captures Henry’s lifetime of longing… and Dean’s beauty. So simple, yet so powerful.
It is refreshing to see a gay movie not populated exclusively with cute, white twenty-year-old guys. Like people in the real world, Big Eden’s characters come in all sizes, shapes, colors, orientations, and ages. The three leads are well into their thirties, and have interests – and lives – far removed from the urban club scene which serves as the (homogenized) backdrop for so many GLBT stories. And Pike is not only a complex and fascinating lead character, he’s also a gay Native American.
Tom Bezucha has pulled off one of the most difficult dramatic feats – making an entertaining film without any “heavies,” let alone violence. The only “villains” here are the characters’ own doubts and confusions, the fears which keep them from truly connecting with other people and themselves. Because of strong writing and performances, those internal antagonists are every bit as formidable – and compelling – as any “Darth” in the Star Wars saga.
I do, however, have a few problems with the film. It was so well-paced, and flowed so effortlessly, that I wish it had gone on a lot longer than its 117 minutes. I wanted to learn more about the townspeople, especially the uncanny matchmaker Grace Cornwell (in a luminous performance by Academy Award-winner Louise Fletcher of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), and the wonderful lesbian couple who make the most of their two brief scenes.
Also, Dean needed to be shown in more contexts, including his relationship with his parents (with whom he is once again living, presumably for the first time in years) and with the townspeople. While we see Henry and Pike in a wide range of situations – both public and private – Dean seems shortchanged by comparison. And that throws the Henry/Dean/Pike “triangle” somewhat out of balance. Also, Dean is too ambiguous in his sexuality, in his feelings for Henry. The DVD’s Deleted Scenes (see my comments below) flesh out Dean’s character in some fascinating ways, but of course they are not part of the released film.
Those are just my quibbles. Big Eden’s achievement becomes more clear when you think how easily this story could have devolved into a phony “family values” – gay or otherwise – fantasy. Tom Bezucha, with his exceptional cast and fellow filmmakers, deftly avoids those traps, in part because they are not afraid to delve into some of the darker emotional recesses of their characters, where confusion, loneliness, and pain lie. Big Eden is filled with humor, both folksy and sophisticated, but it is most powerful in its understanding of the longing we each have to find a place where we are loved, to create our own home and family.
Maybe its emotional range, the generosity of its heart, is what makes Big Eden so special.
And how often do you find a film which is both an ideal “date movie” and something you could watch with your friends and almost any members of your family (biological or created), from children to grandparents?
Will there ever be a society where compassionate, and joyous, places like Big Eden are the norm?
As Tom Bezucha has said, “Maybe imagining such a world is a first step.”
- Written and Directed by Thomas Bezucha
- Produced by Jennifer Chaiken
- Co-Produced by John D. Vaughan
- Original Music by Joseph Conlan
- Cinematography by Rob Sweeney
- Edited by Andrew London
- Production Design by Stephanie Carroll
- Art Direction by Joe Warson
- Costume Design by Sam Hamilton & Rene Holguin
- Arye Gross as Henry Hart
- Eric Schweig as Pike Dexter
- Tim DeKay as Dean Stewart
- Louise Fletcher as Grace Cornwell
- George Coe as Sam Hart
- Nan Martin as Widow Thayer
- Veanne Cox as Mary Margaret Bishop
Wolfe Video, which specializes in GLBT films, has done a first-rate job on transferring the film to DVD. In particular, the sound (Dolby Digital 2.0) is exceptional. They have also put together some outstanding extra features on the DVD, especially the documentaries which include interviews with Tom Bezucha, producer Jennifer Chaiken, and all the other key cast and crew members. Too often the “featurettes” on DVDs are fluff; the ones on Big Eden are both insightful and entertaining.
- Widescreen / theatrical release format (1.85:1 aspect ratio)
- Two-disc set (the first “deluxe edition” of any GLBT-themed film)
- Optional commentary by writer/director Tom Bezucha throughout the entire film
- Nine deleted scenes, with optional commentary from Tom Bezucha – these are of great interest, since they paint a somewhat different, and more intense, relationship between Henry and Dean. If you watch only one, make it “The Tree House.” For the record, I respectfully disagree with Tom Bezucha’s reasons – which you can hear on his optional commentary track – for removing this brief but crucial scene. Without giving too much away, I feel it would have both clarified Dean’s character and added to the film’s overall dramatic tension.
- Outstanding behind-the-scenes documentaries, featuring in-depth cast and crew interviews
- Recipes from the film… you too can learn to cook like Pike!
- Original theatrical trailer
- Trailers for 8 other Wolfe Video releases
- $24.95 suggested retail
Reviewed June 15, 2002 / Revised October 22, 2020