Big Eden
(Frameline's 24th San Francisco International Lesbian & Gay Film Festival - 06/22/00)
by LN Cisneros
Films like Big Eden always start me thinking about what it is that makes me like a movie. And what compels me, along with the other 1,449 people I viewed it with, to give it a standing ovation (it also won the Audience Award at the 24th San Francisco International Lesbian & Gay Film Festival where I saw it).

I'll be honest, I consider myself a hard sell. To the point that a friend of mine dubbed me a 'movie snob' and I've since learned to reply with short answers like "it was cute" or "it was interesting". But that is certainly not to say that I don't enjoy movies. I love all types of movies. However, like most things you are exposed to (or expose yourself to) over and over again, you get desensitized and bored - the same story lines, plot devices, and stereotyped characters (especially when attending a film festival where you are viewing 2 - 3 films and sets of shorts a day).

As I heard a well-known film critic remark, at a panel session I attended at the film festival, "when I view a movie, I just want to be surprised". In new and ingenious ways, I would add. So, when I get to the end of a movie and I really liked it, I have been and am surprised.

That is not to say that the story line and outcome in Big Eden are not at least partly predictable. But, most of the fun of the film is that it works with and against stereotypes and expectations. If you remember the first season of the television show Northern Exposure and how quirky, funny and full of community it was, minus the petty and spiteful Joel, then you will love Big Eden.

The story in Big Eden centers around Henry Hart (Ayre Gross), an artist living in New York who goes back to fictional Big Eden, Montana, the town where he grew up, to take care of his ailing grandfather Sam Hart (George Coe), who just had a stroke. As Henry is re-introduced to the town he struggles to find love which at first he thinks he can find with his best friend from high school, Dean Stewart (Tim DeKay) now divorced with two young boys, who he has been "holding a torch for" for almost 20 years.

However, while Henry is the central character around which the story revolves (and I noticed that Ayre Gross is not top billed - the cast is listed in alphabetical order), the real stars of the movie are the clever story telling, good directing and some very astute acting.

Filmed in beautiful Glacier National Park, there is a lot to like about the film. The quirky stereotypical characters become so endearing you can't help but love them - the old men that hang out at the General Store, the town meddling gossipy Widow Thayer (played by scene stealing, even when the Widow Thayer is at her most irritating, Nan Martin). And, there is a hilarious scene at Thanksgiving dinner made up entirely of looks from all the characters sitting around the table. But, the real gem is Pike Dexter, a rather large and reserved Native American who owns the General Store and takes up cooking when Henry comes to town. Pike is certainly the strong silent type and Eric Schweig plays him perfectly.

And I really liked the fact that the movie includes Louise Fletcher playing a nice, down home, caring person, Grace Cornwell. As opposed to the edgy, devious, sometimes lunatic parts she is known for. Don't get me wrong, I know that those are the types of parts from which careers can be made (Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest) and re-made (Kai Winn Adami in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine). And Louise does them with style. But after a while you wonder if someone who always does those roles (can you say typecast?) can "act" normal. The answer is, of course, yes, and very well thank you. And, she sings too. Twice. In one of my favorite scenes, Grace is trying to explain to Henry that people in the town are trying to help him "but you keep roaming all over and we can't".

Big Eden was written and directed by first time filmmaker Thomas Bezucha who, in his own words, "...believe[s] that people are innately good and loving". And indeed, there is not a bad person among the characters in the town. Which is why something stands out so much more - Henry is closeted (and one other character for that matter). He just can't seem to be able to tell his grandfather that he is gay. In another pivotal scene, Henry's grandfather, who keeps trying to let Henry know in subtle ways that he already knows, asks Henry where he learned shame because he sincerely hopes they didn't teach it to him.

So, it begs the question, that even with all the love and acceptance portrayed in this town, why does Henry find it so difficult to tell his grandfather he is gay? Perhaps this is our hint that the world outside of the town is all too real and that it takes much more than just a 'village'? As Thomas Bezucha also said, "It is my wish that people visiting Big Eden, even while being able to say 'well, that wouldn't happen', might stop to think 'well, it should be that way.' I want the people in the audience to be surprised by their own optimism, and to stumble upon a level of acceptance they may not know they had". Because, "In a real world, where a young man can be beaten to death merely because he is gay, it is important to imagine a world as it could be".

And I know that there was not a single person in the audience who didn't agree.

From The Daily Inter Lake, Montana, October 17, 1999: In between shoots Monday, actors Steve Frye, above left, of Emigrant, and Ken King of Whitefish pass the time with coffee and conversation. Both men play small parts in the feature film Big Eden. Frye, who runs a ranch near Emigrant, also played a part in The Horse Whisperer. The crew was filming two scenes Monday at Holy Nativity Episcopal Church in Whitefish. The film is about a gay New York City artist who returns to Montana to take care of his sick grandfather. The crew will be in the Flathead for about another week. (Photo by Karen Nichols. Copyright October 1999 The Daily Inter Lake).

Click here for official Big Eden photos.
Click here for more Big Eden reviews and production photos.