Monday, January 17, 2022

Big Eden (2000), Thomas Bazucha writer-director, Arye Gross and Eric Schweig

 I rarely write movie reviews. I’ve done 3-4, the last on the delightful road-trip film Harry and Tonto about a man and his cat. But once in a while, I watch something on which I have a fair bit to say, as with the indie Big Eden (2000). So buckle-up, Buttercup.

This film has so much to appreciate even 21 years later. Let me open with what I didn’t: Arye Gross as Harry Hart, the lead. Harry is a successful artist living in NYC who must abruptly return to Montana to care for the ailing grandfather who raised him. My ambivalence to Gross may owe to my dislike of Harry (weird in a movie I otherwise enjoyed). Despite being a good actor (I’ve seen him in other things), Gross just didn’t stand out here, at least not for me.

The actor who does stand out, who steals every scene he’s in, is Eric Schweig as the love-smitten but painfully shy Pike Dexter. He’s matched by Academy Award winner, Louise Fletcher as Grace Cornwell, schoolteacher and family friend, and George Coe, as Harry’s grandfather Sam. O'Neal Compton as Pike’s wingman, Jim Soams, also caught my eye in a tertiary role.

Yet this is Schweig’s movie; he won a grand jury outstanding actor award for a performance that involves more expression and body language than dialogue. Schweig is always worth watching, with an enviable ability to disappear into his characters, but too often, his characters are dictated by his American Indian ethnicity. This one wasn’t, letting him be an actor…not a native actor. And oh, is he an actor. It’s not a flashy role, full of high drama or intense action. It’s quiet. Schweig’s character cooks, or stands hunch-shouldered and tongue-tied, or simply watches what’s happening around him and talks with his face. A tour-de-force.

Performances aside, what I liked best is also what’s typically remarked on as unrealistic, or at least idealistic: a small Montana town where homophobia isn’t an issue. Even the town’s name, Big Eden, suggests the idyllic. Virtually every review mentions this, more often as a ding than as what makes the film, although a few do praise that aspect.

Yet it’s because of the lack of homophobia that Big Eden has a unique message. It’s not rejection by his family and friends that causes Harry grief, but the fear of rejection. Thomas Bazucha, the writer-director, explains, "I wanted [Harry] to be someone that was completely integrated into every part of this community, pretty much without comment. Because there is this question, which we get at when he and his grandfather are talking about the notion of shame in Henry’s life. If you take away all the outside resistance and hostility from people, would that make it easier? And I don’t think it necessarily always does. Sometimes shame is something we create on our own."

The scene to which he refers is near the end, where Harry’s grandfather asks, “Can’t you see all the love people want to pour on you?” then follows it with the very poignant, “Did we teach you shame?” Harry’s answer is no.

But society did.

A less kind world lurks in the background, ironically symbolized by NYC, where the film opens. (The only scene not in Montana.) It’s an interesting reversal to see big, liberal New York City, where being gay is, if not easy, at least not difficult, act as cold foil to a small Montana cowboy town where one might anticipate more of a Matthew Shepard tale than what Big Eden delivers. “I wanted to go see a gay film where someone fell in love, and no one had to die in the end,” Bazucha says.

Big Eden just rolls over stereotypes and assumptions. I started to write “doesn’t do clichés” except the entire plot is one big cliché. As a romcom dramady, it has all you’d expect from an unlikely love match to romantic misdirection and well-intentioned but bumbling friends to the final sappy, happy ending. Other than a hero and hero, instead of hero and heroine, there’s not much unique about it.

And that’s exactly what’s unique about it. It’s a romcom. It’s not a GAY romcom.

Just like Schweig’s performance is masterful in its quietness, Big Eden makes a statement by not trying to.

(Virtually) everything that happens in the film could’ve happened if it had involved a hero and heroine. Neither role is gay-coded. Harry is, admittedly, an artist living in NYC, but there it ends. He can’t cook, lacks more than normal style-sense, and is not at all flamboyant. Occasionally, a gesture or expression clicks my gaydar, but the characters are fully rounded. Similarly with the tertiary lesbian couple. One works at the local Ace Hardware, but her partner plays piano for the local church (which would be a cliché if a gay man).

That’s what makes the film charming. While full of (intentional) plot cliches, it avoids most characters cliches, or deliberately undercuts them.

The biggest undercutting is that nobody in town seems upset by Harry’s orientation. Some express surprise upon learning, but more in an “Oh,” sort of way. Most take it in stride. He’s even teaching at the local elementary school, which in 2000 would have raised comment for a gay man in many rural communities.

If Montana is a red state, it’s not the Bible Belt. The characters go to church, but don’t seem religious in a negative way. Harry’s grandfather even tells him that God made him beautiful. More Episcopalian than Southern Baptist. Like other parts of the “Wild West,” Montana was historically a refuge for individualists and others who didn’t fit into “proper society.” History does define the character of regions, so while unlikely, I didn’t find it wholly impossible that at least a chunk of the locals in Big Eden might care more that “their own” were happy, than that they’re heterosexual.

That brings me to two important qualifiers. First, neither Harry nor Pike are strangers; they grew up there. Small towns can be more accepting, even protective of homegrown difference. Much depends on who lives there—which brings me to my second point. These characters are nice people who just want their friends to be happy.

Consider the town gossip, Widow Thayer. Initially introduced as a busybody who takes it upon herself to matchmake Harry, as soon as she realizes Harry isn’t into girls, the parade of women becomes a collection of men, even calling in prospects from some distance. This begs the question of how this elderly widow knows all these fit gay guys, but who she seems is not who she is. Unfortunately, an exasperated Harry is unable to appreciate the surprise.

When he first arrives in town, Grace, the local school marm and longtime family friend, arranges to have someone cook for them because Harry can’t cook. She is notably insistent on involving Pike, who owns the local general store. The Widow Thayer will cook; Pike will deliver. One may wonder if she already suspects Pike’s orientation and uses this elaborate scheme to move him into Harry’s path—a better matchmaker than the widow.

All the characters are genuinely kind, including the Romantic False Lead, Harry’s teenaged best friend and longtime crush, Dean Stewart (Tim DeKay). Conveniently, the newly divorced Dean has moved back to Big Eden only a week before Harry returns. Harry is initially reluctant to see Dean, but when they do run into each other at church, Dean is overjoyed to reunite with his old friend. Later, Harry chides him for not having been in contact for eighteen years. Dean replies, “You know, it’s not like you kept in touch”—which a surprised Harry must own. A nice turn of the tables, showing how Harry tends to blame others when he’s just as guilty.

In fact, the least likable character in Big Eden is Harry himself: romantic hero as antihero.

The film began with his decision to leave NYC, despite his art show opening the next day. He must care for his grandfather, who’s suffered an unexpected stroke. Properly heroic! Yet his grandfather isn’t at death’s door, and he could wait 24 hours. So, when he claims he “doesn’t have a choice,” his friend and manager replies, “You are choosing. You’re choosing to bail. As usual.” What might have been heroic is thus subverted into the selfish.

The film’s biggest failing, imo, is an imperfect resolution for Harry’s callous self-absorption.

In the same interview quoted above, Bazucha is asked if, in retrospect, he’d change anything. He says the length of the kiss at the end. He wanted it to be uncomfortably long and in-your-face because the rest of the film wasn’t, but thought he overdid it.

A bigger “overdoing it” may be in how long it takes Harry to come around—but never showing his actual epiphany. Pike gets one. Harry doesn’t. Several scenes would seem to set up Harry’s, but he remains obtuse. It makes him increasingly unlikable as the film progresses. Harry is so self-involved, it’s almost painful.

The first time Pike arrives with dinner, Harry is too busy on the phone to do more than open the door. It’s his grandfather Sam who has a conversation with Pike. After hanging up, Harry does implore Pike to stay, but it has the stink of obligation. After Pike leaves, Harry’s semi-frustrated, “Kinda a quiet guy” (the tone belays the words) is met by a tolerant shrug from Sam.

Pike’s continued refusal to stay for dinner only irritates Harry; on one occasion, he puts away the extra plate with a roll of eyes. His impatience is most obvious when, after Pike’s delivery of the first meal he made himself, Pike tries to flee after saying he’s afraid. Sam grips his wrist to promise, “Next time, Mr. Dexter.” In sharp contrast, as the door closes, Harry calls, “Thank you,” followed by a snarky, “Good night,” to which Sam just gives him a look.

In contrast to his grandson, Sam takes time to lure Pike in, convincing him to stay when Harry is out with Dean. We suspect Sam uses his aloneness to elicit Pike’s sympathy and overcome his shyness. After that, Pike often eats with Sam when Harry isn’t there.

Harry’s insecurity makes him selfish, which in turn makes him cruel—usually unintentionally, but sometimes in petty ways. More often, Gross plays Harry with a kicked-puppy expression. We may suspect Harry’s attractiveness to Pike lies in a desire to rescue him, as suggested by Pike’s comment that he “just wants things to be nice” for Harry. Unfortunately, Harry has become comfortable in his misery and has a habit of missing what’s right in front of his nose.

This may be most clearly demonstrated by the fact he never cottons on (except perhaps at the very end?) to the fact PIKE has taken over cooking for him and his grandfather—although virtually everyone else figures it out, even the widow Thayer herself. Among the more delightful aspects of the film is how Pike’s friends assist him in his culinary courtship.

Harry, however, never pursues where these gourmet meals are coming from, despite the sharp change in food quality, or when he and Sam compliment the widow’s cooking only to have her name foods they didn’t eat. No matter how many times people question who’s making the meals, Harry ignores all inconsistencies. It might be implausible, except we see over and over in other ways that he lacks basic curiosity about other people. At one point, while pouring out his heart to his manager-friend back in NYC (who warns him things with Dean will end badly), she snaps, “The baby is fine, thanks for asking,” just before he hangs up…because he never asked. This lack of other-curiosity leads to his lack of compassion. It might be tempting to chalk up his behavior to big-city versus rural manners, but it’s much deeper.

Again, we find a contrast in Pike, who discovers, relatively quickly, that two of Harry’s paintings were purchased by a museum. Upon his wingman Jim revealing that knowledge to Harry, Schweig-as-Pike sweetly tries to hide behind a piece of paper Harry just gave him. Pike’s affection is shown by finding out about Harry. In contrast, we get a litany of things Harry doesn’t know about Dean, and if this might be chalked up to trying to get over him, when Harry says, “I didn’t know you had kids!” it sounds more accusing than surprised. One musical montage set to a country love song shows Pike learning to cook for Harry, contrasted with Harry and Dean constructing a wheelchair ramp. Pike is doing something for Harry, and Dean is doing something for Harry. Harry does nothing much for either one.

If both Harry and Pike suffer from insecurity that can make them abrupt, I find this contrast between them pivotal. In response to his friends pestering him about his feelings for Harry, Pike says, “I just want things to be nice for him.” To which his friends reply, “We want things to be nice for you too, buddy.” Harry is never that selfless. The sensitive artist isn’t very sensitive.

As much as I like the film, the ending is flawed because we never see Harry learn anything. At the end, he returns to the general store to be with Pike. But…why? He may not have “bailed” again, but we aren’t shown why he changed his mind. We can guess but shouldn’t be made to. This movie needed 3-5 more minutes and a come-to-Jesus moment for Harry.

In any case, earlier, Dean works out how Harry feels about him, and has been making an effort to be what Harry wants because he cares so deeply about him. Following a second hospital trip for Sam, Dean tries kissing Harry, but must admit, “I can’t, I just can’t.” Harry seems understanding at the time. Is he learning? We can hope.

Not long after, on a night when Harry’s father goes to bed early, Harry finally convinces Pike to stay for dinner. Or rather, come back for dinner. We see Pike rush home to feed his dog, then dress up in a love-red button-down. It’s darling. It’s also the first time Harry makes a real effort to see Pike. The next day, he shows up at the general store (supposedly) looking for mail, and to invite Pike to Thanksgiving dinner. Is Harry having an epiphany?

Maybe. But we discover he’s there with Dean and Dean’s kids, on their way somewhere else. Pike’s hopes are dashed, even as his friends argue that Harry’s drop-in meant more. (This prefaces the “I just want things to be nice for him” statement.) Pike does attend Thanksgiving, and there’s some veeery interesting table glances between Harry and Pike—noticed by others, including Dean—which may suggest Harry’s affections are shifting. Or maybe Harry’s just trying to make Dean jealous (subconsciously, if not deliberately).

After the meal, Dean confronts Harry in the pantry to say he wants to try again. In response, he gets an earful as an angry Harry accuses him of leading him on, concluding, “Can’t you pick on someone else?”

Dean replies that he needs to remain close to Harry: “You act like this is so easy for you, just cutting me out.” Harry replies that he’s waited twenty years, and spent the last six months in Big Eden, hoping something would materialize between them. He calls it wasting his time.

Dean lays into him for selfishness, bringing home what’s already been established: “It’s all about you, isn’t it? Man, I would do anything in the world for you, anything I could”—which is the problem. He can’t make himself feel what he doesn’t. That isn’t enough for Harry, and to his complaint that he’s loved Dean for years, Dean says, “You may be in love, but it’s not with me.” Dean’s right. Harry’s in love with the idea of Dean, which stops him from seeing what he has. “I do know what love is,” Dean says. “You’re my family. I’m sorry. I’m sorry that’s not good enough for you.”

Ouch. But also touché.

Pike, of course, is right there as Dean explodes out of the pantry, then storms out of the house. Pike leaves shortly after as well. Harry’s reaction, instead of introspection, is just thwarted anger.

Harry’s disillusionment is understandable, having been hung up on Dean for decades. Yet Dean’s accusations are spot on, and I felt more for Dean than Harry (as Bazucha intended?). Dean is sorrowing for hurting Harry; Harry just feels sorry for himself. Later that same evening, his grandfather presses Harry on his “intentions,” pointing out that people have come to rely on him. It annoys Harry but leads to his grandfather affirming his love for him, asking him whether they (his grandparents) taught him shame. He says they didn’t. This conversation, more than any other, makes it clear Harry can’t blame his insecurities on rejection. He was never rejected. Yet affirmation is a different thing from a lack of hostility, and Harry dissolves into tears, head on his grandfather’s shoulder.

This should be the climax: the breaking and mending of Harry.

Instead, he remains entrenched in his self-pity, deciding to return to NYC—“bailing” as his manager-friend accused him at the film’s outset.

He comes to the general store to give Pike the painting that was pivotal in his coming to see Pike with new eyes, even says he wishes they’d got to know each other better. But it’s not an overture to increased intimacy, it’s a going-away present. Harry tries to deny it, but Pike is having none of that and tells Harry he has work to do (Harry should leave). To complicate matters, while Pike and Harry talk in back, Dean walks into the store, looking for Harry. His state suggests he wants to make up. He’s told to go around the side, where, through a window, he witnesses the picture gifting, but of course can’t hear the larger context. Feeling jilted, he flees to his truck. While sitting there, crying, the (female) mayor happens by, and comes to comfort him.

So Harry has hurt two people in one fell swoop: Dean and Pike. If he didn’t know Dean would be there, his behavior with Pike is just mean-spirited. That’s what makes Harry so frustrating and why it’s hard to be sympathetic to him. His conversation with Grace after shows he still hasn’t learned anything. “I was just hoping you’d let yourself be found this time,” she says. He walks away from her. On the way home, he stops at Dean’s, presumably to tell him goodbye, but walks away there too without knocking.


The unexpected death of Sam delays Harry’s plans. It’s Pike who finds the body, presumably when bringing dinner. He waits to be there for Harry, yet can’t bring himself to attend the funeral later, which makes Harry mad…although we see that Harry himself sat in the vestibule. When Pike’s wingman Jim tries to explain that big public events aren’t easy for Pike, Harry just retorts, “It isn’t easy for me!” Jim replies, “Just try to understand him.” Yet Harry can’t because it’s all about Harry. (At this point, the viewer may seriously wonder what Pike sees in this guy?)

Harry does try to visit Pike one last time, bringing him the carved replica of his general store that Sam had made. Yet it seems more to assuage Harry’s guilt, and is too little too late. Pike doesn’t answer. Henry leaves the wooden model, still planning to return to NYC.

The film’s conclusion follows too quickly. As noted before, Pike has a revelation and decides to go after Henry in a final, classic rush-to-the-airport trope where he plans (finally) to declare his feelings…but the plane is taxing down the runway. Defeated, he returns home, only to see the Hart’s truck parked at his store. Entering, he finds his friends there, along with Harry, who didn’t leave after all.

In these last few scenes, Pike has become the protagonist, his journey the important one. Harry has slid to the side. This shift screws up the resolution. Yes, it’s a happy ending, but has Harry actually learnt anything? And if so, how? Earlier, on the way to the car to leave for the airport, Harry ran into the Widow Thayer, who gave him back Pike’s plate, saying, “I’m sorry. This plate doesn’t belong to me.” Harry’s face wears a puzzled expression.

Did he finally figure it out?

We’re left to assume he does. Unfortunately, there’s no actual epiphany scene for Harry. If we don’t need to be beaten over the head, what we get is just not enough. Harry has been SO selfish and blind for 99% of the film, why does he suddenly get it in a 1-2 second camera pan? I find his sudden reversal more unbelievable than a non-homophobic rural town in Montana. Pike’s epiphany is much clearer, and Schweig does it with virtually no dialogue (once more showing what a superb actor he is).

The last scene, at a party some weeks (or months) later, we find the once-too-shy-to-attend-parties Pike there with Harry. While dancing, they share a loooong, passionate (fully open-mouthed) kiss, putting a seal on their relationship. A small note that while Bazucha is gay, neither of the lead actors is. In 2022, with representation more important, that might raise eyebrows. But in 2000, that both actors put pedal to the metal might be a fair twist on the many times closeted gay actors had to feign passion for the opposite sex in movies. Reputedly Schweig gave a pep talk to his costar beforehand, that they had to get this right. Props to him.

So, the plot is predictable but holey, and the lead character isn’t the one for whom we cheer. At best, we put up with him.

What renders this film outstanding is the blasé approach to gay romance, and general lack of character stereotypes—and not just gay ones

Bazucha said that even before casting Schweig, he saw the character of Pike as Native American. Yet there’s nothing about the role that demands it. Nor do we find anything specifically native in the shop or his personal quarters in back. At Thanksgiving dinner, when the mayor leans over to admit, “I always wanted to ask…,” we half-expect a question about Indians and Thanksgiving. Instead, she wants to know what Pike’s posse do all day outside Pike’s store. “Nothing,” he replies, making everyone grin. It’s a good example of how Bazucha playfully undermines our expectations. At no point do the characters refer to Pike’s ethnicity. Only Harry’s NYC manager-friend who's flown out to attend the funeral calls him Indian—3/4s of the way through the film.

In just one place does Pike speak as a native person, when he relates the Onondaga tale of the Pleiades. Schweig brings to it the characteristic quiet rhythm of native storytelling.

I was as delighted to see an Indian in a non-Indian-specific role, as I was to see a romcom that has two male leads (as opposed to a gay romcom). Pow-wow Highway and Smoke Signals in the US and Dance Me Outside in Canada were among the first films to show current Indian life, as opposed to historical recreations. They’re about modern rez experience. Others followed where native people wrote, directed, and acted in the productions, most recently HULU’s critically acclaimed Reservation Dogs (all-native production) and NBC Peacock’s Rutherford Falls (with a strong native presence among creators and actors). These are authentic renderings of native experience. Yet being Indian is also crucial to the storylines.

It’s mind-blowing to see a native actor playing a character who happens to be native but doesn’t have to be. Schweig himself has expressed this in an interview:

MP: So, most of what you've been offered, not just yourself, but with a lot of Indian people, .... it's always "the Indian" role of a hundred or so years ago? Not just a regular 20th century guy?

ES: Yeah, THE INDIAN. I'm not an Indian actor. I'm an actor who just happens to be an Indian.

MP: Cast as the Indian all the time, but you'd prefer to be offered a role because you're a good actor?

ES: Yeah.

Even if Hollywood is still unfriendly to people of color, the POC in a non-POC-specific role is a ceiling that has been shattered for most minorities in the US—but not for Indian people.

Ergo what Big Eden did by front-ending the romcom aspect rather than the gay aspect, it also did by front-ending the character aspect instead of the Indian aspect. That’s what makes this little indie film particularly special.

It gives a glimpse of what unconscious inclusivity might look like.

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