Just a week ago, in Dayton CityPaper, I took to the pulpit, preaching in support of an evolving gospel of changing awareness with renewed open-mindedness about the LGBT community. Beyond the great strides being made in the political sphere, the real immediate battlefront, where hearts and minds are won, remains the cultural and social realm. We, as a people, embrace what we see, the positive everyday images, because it is in those familiar moments that we recognize ourselves.
Which is what makes the 15th anniversary edition of Thomas Bezucha’s Big Eden such a fascinating release. The film slipped under the radar for me, during the time when I was just starting out in the critical world, and the subject of gay love, especially as represented by Bezucha, was not going to gain much traction in the Cincinnati/Dayton market – even on the art house level. The writer-director’s nuanced approach to ensemble narrative storytelling – with its focus on character over plot machinations – wouldn’t come to the fore and attract mainstream attention until his next film, The Family Stone, but Big Eden shows just how solid his foundation was from the beginning.
Intriguingly though, it also illustrates what a big beautiful dreamer Bezucha is. How else can you describe a film (and a filmmaker) that trumpets, back at the dawn of the new millennium (a time fraught with fear of what would happen when the clock struck twelve, months of not knowing who would be our next President, and no real sense, but possibly hopefulness that through technology we might become more connected), an oasis of acceptance in Big Eden, Montana?
The frontier might not be quite as wild as it once was, but Bezucha shows us those sweeping vistas – an idealized version of God’s country – in contrast to the hustle and bustle hinted at in the tight urban confines where we initially find Henry Hart (Arye Gross), an artist on the verge of success, the kind most would-be strivers from the hinterlands imagine they will experience in New York. Of course, in Montana, we expect the cowboy ranchers of old, now driving pick-up trucks and their rugged ways passed down, generation to generation, which to a certain extent explains why Henry must have left. He’s an artiste, with soft hands and a soft heart, a soft and enduring longing for a lover, back home, that he could never have. That is what drove him away, forced him to keep this secret from his beloved grandfather (George Coe) who raised him.
It is his grandfather that compels him to return. A heart attack, just as Henry’s set to open a huge gallery showing of his work, forces a change, a homecoming that will reunite Henry with not only his grandfather, but also his best friend Dean (Tim DeKay), his unrequited love, who is back as well after a recent split with his wife. While Dean may be a parent, willingly embrace adult responsibilities, he still harbors the playful somewhat ambiguous spirit that enflamed Henry during their youth. And lurking on the margins, there is Pike Dexter (Eric Schweig), the quietly unassuming owner of the general store who watches Henry and slowly, sneakily inserts himself into Henry’s life by cooking meals for his grandfather during a long convalescence period.
It is not the story points, the routine beats that matter though, in terms of the overall cultural and social significance of the film. Instead, it is how Bezucha upends our expectations by presenting Big Eden, the place, as an almost fairy tale world of acceptance. Once it becomes clear that Henry will stay around for awhile, to be near and take care of his grandfather, the town’s aging matchmaker the Widow Thayer (Nan Martin) does what she, in her mind, does best – setting the wheels in motion to introduce Henry the bachelor to all of the available women in town. But once it becomes clear that Henry’s not interested in the ladies, she immediately corrects her assumption and gathers the eligible men for him.
And at every turn, similar adjustments are made. There is no drama and no offense taken during any instance where questions emerge. Big Eden, the place and the movie, is a utopian model for universal acceptance. It is the world, as it should be, but the lingering conflict is that Henry cannot fully trust in it. He’s never been able to share his feelings with Dean, which has stunted his emotional life and well-being. Henry has also never come out to his grandfather, although it is plain that his loving guardian would have no problem. In fact, his grandfather comes closer to broaching the subject with Henry, although the tentativeness seen in the older man is due to his respect for his grandson’s feelings and the notion that it should be up to Henry to reveal this personal truth when he is ready.
So by the time the story gets to the budding relationship between Henry and Pike, Big Eden proves to be little more than a mild comedy of errors, a minor Shakespearean play of manners and mis-communications. There is no “issue” dominating the dynamic, just feelings and a lack of nerve. It could be argued that Big Eden is bold, because it dared to strip away the boldness of any message, in order to focus on the small human interactions.
If only the Kim Davis-types of the world would pay attention. (tt stern-enzi)