Montana may be the home of the Unabomber and the macho, wildcat characters of Thomas McGuane, but in tyro writer-director Thomas Bezucha's mild-mannered "Big Eden," the Big Sky Country is a fantasy land where gay men can come gracefully out of the closet and easily mingle with even the crustiest cowboy types, some of whom know how to brew up espressos. Capping the L.A. Indie fest and befitting fest's agenda of stressing character-oriented pics, this tale of a New York artist rediscovering his roots in woodsy lakeside hamlet of Big Eden would be an ideal entry on the Pax web if not for its gay heroes, and is much too mainstream in both style and storytelling for gay film fans demanding stronger, punchier work. Thus wedged in its uneasy niche, pic will have a hard time breaking out, but the sheer class of the production will surely draw distrib interest, if not commitment.

Montana may be the home of the Unabomber and the macho, wildcat characters of Thomas McGuane, but in tyro writer-director Thomas Bezucha’s mild-mannered “Big Eden,” the Big Sky Country is a fantasy land where gay men can come gracefully out of the closet and easily mingle with even the crustiest cowboy types, some of whom know how to brew up espressos. Capping the L.A. Indie fest and befitting fest’s agenda of stressing character-oriented pics, this tale of a New York artist rediscovering his roots in woodsy lakeside hamlet of Big Eden would be an ideal entry on the Pax web if not for its gay heroes, and is much too mainstream in both style and storytelling for gay film fans demanding stronger, punchier work. Thus wedged in its uneasy niche, pic will have a hard time breaking out, but the sheer class of the production will surely draw distrib interest, if not commitment.

Having made an uncommon leap from corporate design for such firms as Coach and Polo/Ralph Lauren to filmmaking, Bezucha demonstrates impressive skills and control of both material and camera, while projecting a fair-minded humanist attitude that’s as American asThanksgiving dinner (which is lovingly depicted here). Story of how and why painter Henry Hart (Arye Gross) makes the shift from go-go Gotham lifestyle to a satisfying life in Montana is far from convincing, however, raising serious questions about motivation and intent at almost every juncture. Pic’s excessively sober approach finally becomes a problem, since it is depicting as unreal a West as “Northern Exposure,” but without that series’ deliberate exaggerations.

Opening is, in retrospect, the start of the problems: Henry’s rising art career — the Whitney, for goodness sake, is interested in his bland abstracts — is glossed over in the time it takes to roll down opening credits. All that’s required is a phone call from Grace (Louise Fletcher) in Big Eden, with bad news that grandfather Sam (George Coe) has had a stroke, to put Henry on a plane west. This despite the reality — as his obnoxious gallery manager, Mary Margaret (Veanne Cox), notes — that he’s leaving just before the biggest opening of his career. Henry hardly struggles with what should be an enormously vexing decision, suggesting not only that he doesn’t care much for New York or his art future, but that he’s the only person on the planet who can take care of Sam.

Circumstances also stack the deck in favor of Montana, and the view of the idyllic town set on a glassy lake bordering Glacier National Park makes one wonder why Henry left in the first place. Indeed, the folks of Big Eden are uniformly kind, mannerly, hospitable, if not a bit pushy (as in the case of Widow Thayer, care of perennially showstopping thesp Nan Martin) and seem unanimously happy to see Henry back. He’s nervous when Grace tells him that his old high school heartthrob, Dean (Tim DeKay), the is-he-gay-or-not dad of two is back in town, but he’s also looking forward to reviving a dormant, 18-year-old crush on the near-mid-aged stud muffin.

Things are testy between Henry and Dean, but there’s an unexpected romantic angle in shy Native American big man Pike (Eric Schweig). Because Henry doesn’t cook, Pike tries to impress him by secretly prepping gourmet meals for recovering Sam under the guise that they’re the product of Widow Thayer, frustrated in her attempts to match Henry up with a local gal.

Script’s signature is the quiet, understated way in which Pike’s love interest in Henry gradually develops, partly reflecting the local culture’s reluctant attitudes about gays and also Bezucha’s strongest card, as a writer who crafts with as much subtext as possible. Equally indicative of pic’s feel-good fantasy p.o.v., though, is how the widow turns on a dime and easily arranges a party of local gay men to meet Henry. That there isn’t one renegade nasty in town who objects to this robs pic of conflict, juice and any sense of real clashes in American culture.

Emotions are allowed to surface at rare points, as when Dean and Henry have a final Thanksgiving day faceoff (in a closet, no less), and Schweig’s low-keyed perf as Pike suggests a deeply buried level of passion ready to break out, but finale plotting resorts to extremely predictable Hollywood twists and resolutions that send pic to a level of unreality surpassing anything that’s gone before.

Fortunately, what could have been another terminally talky indie movie is well balanced between reflective and slightly droll moods, and often the most effective points are hit when the least is said. What emerges, however, is a case in which subordinate characters’ desires are clearer and better dramatized than those of Henry, whose inner confusion and backstory lack any weight or conviction.

Gross carries this burden, but his perf offers no further insight into what makes Henry run. In what may be the first case of a gay Native American realized onscreen, Schweig makes his fledgling cook’s struggle to embrace Henry ultimately rewarding, even as we realize this could happen only in the movies. DeKay, as the spurned Dean, delivers a turn as vanilla as the pic itself, until he finally speaks his piece. Martin, a great stage vet, commands her every screen moment.

Pic’s overall tech work betrays at no moment that it’s a first-timer’s work, buttressed by exceptionally crisp lensing by indie vet Rob Sweeney, steady pacing care of cutter Andrew London and gentle underscoring by composer Joseph Conlan.

Big Eden

Production

A Chaiken Films production. Produced by Jennifer Chaiken. Co-producer, John D. Vaughan. Directed, written by Thomas Bezucha.

Crew

Camera (FotoKem color), Rob Sweeney; editor, Andrew London; music, Joseph Conlan; music supervisor, Brian Ross; production designer, Stephanie Carroll; art director, Joe Warson; costume designers, Sam Hamilton, Rene Holguin; sound (Dolby), Randall Lawson; supervising sound editor, Christopher Hogan; choreography, Alex and Melanie Parkhurst; assistant director, Jeanine Rohn; casting, David Bloch. Reviewed at L.A. Independent Film Festival (closing night), April 18, 2000. Running time: 119 MIN.

With

Henry Hart ..... Arye Gross Pike Dexter ..... Eric Schweig Dean Stewart ..... Tim DeKay Grace Cornwell ..... Louise Fletcher Sam Hart ..... George Coe Widow Thayer ..... Nan Martin Jim Soams ..... O'Neal Compton Anna Rudolph ..... Corinne Bohrer Mary Margaret Bishop ..... Veanne Cox
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