Marlboro Country may be the least likely setting for a gay romantic comedy, but for first-time filmmaker Thomas Bezucha, that’s exactly where “Big Eden” takes place. And the unlikely casting of Eric Schweig, the Inuit heart-throb from Inuvik, North-West Territories, as one of the love triangle, works remarkably well.
Ayre Gross stars as Henry, a successful New York painter, who unexpectedly gets called back home to Big Eden, a fictitious small town in Montana, to care for his ailing grandfather Sam (George Coe) who has suffered a stroke. No sooner does Henry pull into town when he learns that his high school buddy, Dean (Tim DeKay) has moved back, now newly divorced and with two sons in tow. Henry confronts his own loneliness and unrequited love for Dean head-on but not without a few bumps and bruises along the way. As Henry comes to terms with Dean’s straightness, Pike Dexter (Eric Schweig), the proprietor of Big Eden’s general store finds himself love-struck with Henry.
This scenario comes about because Henry can’t cook to save his life and Pike has been asked by Sam’s old friend Grace Cornwell (played by Louise Fletcher) to act as the go-between, delivering boxed dinners from the Widow Thayer (Nan Martin) to the recuperating Sam. But Pike is so painfully shy that he is unable to articulate his feelings and yet at the same time fails at disguising his emotions from the eyes of the townsfolk. In the hopes of getting Henry’s attention and winning his heart, Pike pours through the pages of The Joy of Cooking and secretly starts whipping up culinary delights, substituting the Widow’s gastronomic disasters with gourmet delicacies.
The script is full of comedic moments. With the kind of zany humor reminiscent of “The Three Stooges” or “I Love Lucy” skits, many of these scenes take place around the general store where the meddling Widow Thayer and a bunch of good ol’ boys conspire to bring Pike and Henry together. Martin, a veteran stage actress, gives a stellar performance as does the rest of the supporting cast, most notably Fletcher (“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”) and Coe.
But this movie clearly belongs to Schweig, who plays Pike with such vulnerability and charm that it’s impossible to take your eyes off him. Bezucha says that was this sensitive quality that led him to cast Schweig. “Eric has a presence; he has an edge. You don’t know where it’s going but you stick with him because you want to see where it goes.
“I looked at quite a few tapes of Native American actors, and when I found out Eric was a carver, the search was over. It was important for me as a director that Eric carved masks because Pike is man who hides behind masks; I knew Eric would bring that into his performance.”
Besides presenting a community so full of tolerance that not only are individuals respected for who they are but are in fact encouraged to be true to themselves, Bezucha (who wrote and directed “Big Eden”) challenged convention with the character Pike. Asked why he cast Pike as an American Indian, Bezucha freely admits he doesn’t have a clue. “I have no idea why. I guess I wanted Pike to feel like an outsider. But then once I decided that he was native,” he goes on to say, “I was very careful about my decisions with the character; such as I wanted him to own the store instead of just working in it. I wanted him to pull his own weight. I wanted him to be on equal footing with the other characters.”
Shooting entirely on location in the fall of 1999 in both New York and at Glacier National Park in Montana, the cast and crew found themselves holed up off-season in a resort with no TV and no phone. Bezucha says the isolation served the production well by creating a family atmosphere where a collaborative spirit carried them through the 25-day shoot.
“Big Eden” works because Bezucha writes a script that’s tender-hearted and funny in all the right places, even the pairing of the Schweig and Gross characters, who to all appearances look like a mismatched couple, is refreshing. This debut feature brings together an illustrious ensemble of actors and reminds audiences how far a little bit of compassion and humor can go when trying to present insight into an issue that continues to divide communities and families, regardless of culture.
With a limited theatrical release nationwide back in June 2001, the indie flick garnered widespread critical praise by film critics and went on to win numerous awards on the festival circuit. It closed the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival and won both the Audience Award for best feature and Best American Independent Film at the prestigious 2001 Cleveland International Film Festival. “Big Eden” has recently been released on DVD and VHS format. Check it out!