Dramatic delicacy and strong acting distinguish "Eden," a tale of the emotional tensions between a disease-stricken woman, her teacher husband and an idealistic student. Set at a prep school in the mid-'60s, pic also boasts convincing period atmosphere, but its wafty mystical overtones and lack of strong plot hooks could make it a problem sell, less likely for a theatrical career, perhaps, than for fest and vid playoff.

Dramatic delicacy and strong acting distinguish “Eden,” a tale of the emotional tensions between a disease-stricken woman, her teacher husband and an idealistic student. Set at a prep school in the mid-’60s, pic also boasts convincing period atmosphere, but its wafty mystical overtones and lack of strong plot hooks could make it a problem sell, less likely for a theatrical career, perhaps, than for fest and vid playoff.

Helen (Joanna Going), who has multiple sclerosis, begins tale’s narration by recalling dreams of flying, which hint that her deepest problems are more spiritual than physical. Married to Bill (Dylan Walsh), a caring but somewhat rigid guy, she seems to be reaching for something undefined beyond being a wife and mother of two young children.

One of her interests is tutoring Dave (Sean Patrick Flanery), a ’60s-style dreamer who’s not living up to his academic potential. He, in turn, has a crush on Helen and resents Bill, not only as the “other man” but as a teacher who thinks that discipline is more important than inspiration.

As the effects of Helen’s illness come and go, she becomes convinced that her soul is leaving her body and traveling at night (until late in the tale, these experiences are conveyed only in the narration). Whether or not such episodes are “real,” they suggest that Helen is slipping away from her normal life mentally, as happens more concretely when she suddenly lapses into a coma.

This drastic downturn only sparks the rivalry between Bill and Dave, each of whom is convinced that only he understands the stricken woman. The decision as to whether she will live or die, though, seems to belong solely to Helen, whose spirit can see and act even when her body can’t.

Pic’s narrative has a strong novelistic flavor, with results of varying effectiveness. On the minus side, there’s such rudimentary symbolism as having a caged bird represent the trapped psyche, and shifts of perspective among the main characters that sometimes seem more haphazard than purposeful. Additionally , plot’s astral-projection motif functions mostly as a literary device and isn’t handled in a way to overcome the skepticism of nonbelievers.

On the other hand, “Eden” will undoubtedly strike some viewers as paradisiacal for eschewing obvious plot mechanics and investing everything in a subtle, oblique approach to engaging, believable, well-drawn characters. The people here are genuinely worth caring about, and director Howard Goldberg brings them to life with the help of three excellent leads.

While Walsh and Flanery prove vivid and well matched as the men, Going anchors the pic with an extraordinarily rich and sympathetic performance.

Goldberg’s direction is generally assured. Tech credits are top-notch all round, with Hubert Taczanowski’s lush photography contributing significantly to the lyrical mood.

Eden

Production

A Water Street Pictures presentation. Produced by Harvey Kahn, Chip Duncan. Executive producer, Robert William Landaas. Co-producer, Todd Hoffman. Directed, written by Howard Goldberg.

Crew

Camera (color), Hubert Taczanowski; editor, Steve Nevius; music, Brad Fiedel; art direction, Philip J. Meyer; costume design, Elizabeth Kaye; special effects, Gene Warren; assistant director , Cynthia Arzner; casting, Ellie Kanner (L.A.), Heidi Walker (Seattle). Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 21, 1996. Running time: 109 MIN.

With

Helen Kunen - Joanna Going
Bill Kunen - Dylan Walsh
Dave Edgerton - Sean Patrick Flanery
Rick - Sean Christensen
Sonny - Edward O'Blenis Jr.
Johnny - Stephen Lennstrom
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