2 min

Fairy tale romance

Pining among the pines

ADAM AND STEVE? Arye Gross and Eric Schweig star in the delightful big eden. Credit: Xtra files

Big Eden plays like a like a very special episode of Northern Exposure – and that’s meant as a compliment.

It’s a small, sweet, well-written film, set in a gorgeous fictional small town in Montana entirely populated by unusually open-minded (mostly elderly) eccentrics. In between fishing, playing cards, and attending church suppers, these loveable codgers play matchmaker for an unlikely pair of gay men.

One half of the couple is Henry Hart, played by Arye Gross from the original Ellen series. Henry is a successful artist in New York. On the night of a big opening, he gets word that his grandfather back in Montana has had a stroke. He returns to Montana to care for him and enters into an awkward relationship with his childhood buddy Dean.

Henry’s unrequited love for his old friend is what drove Henry to New York in the first place. Henry’s never told anyone in Big Eden, including his grandfather, that he’s gay and his feelings for Dean, now a divorced father, have only intensified – and it seems that Dean might finally share them.

Of course, Henry’s big secret is no secret to anyone in Big Eden – including his grandfather it turns out – and soon a busy-body church lady is trying to set up Henry with members of a local all-male chess club and choir.

The other half of the pair is Pike Dexter (Eric Schweig), an extraordinarily shy Native man who runs Big Eden’s general store and who’s pined for Henry for years. Unable to approach him directly, Pike cooks for him, making elaborate gourmet meals that he delivers to Henry and his ailing grandfather, claiming they’ve been prepared by a woman in town.

Will Pike’s patient courtship win out over Henry’s tormented relationship with Dean? The townsfolk sure hope so, helping mastermind a plan to keep Henry in town and bring him and Pike together.

Schweig is excellent as Pike, who says very little but whose enormous feelings are painfully evident in his expressive eyes and face. Gross, however, while a good actor, is almost amusingly miscast. There’s just no way that this died-in-the-wool New Yorker ever set foot in Montana before, let alone grew up there. And Henry’s so self-absorbed it’s difficult to understand Pike’s attraction, while the chemistry between Henry and Dean is almost non-existent.

Still, Gross is very convincing in conveying Henry’s self-loathing and growing self-awareness. And there’s a remarkable scene in which Henry’s grandfather (George Coe) confronts him about hiding his sexual orientation that’s a devastating comment on the emotional toll of being in the closet.

All the contrivances and sit-com conventions aside, first-time writer/director Thomas Bezucha still manages to charm with this sweet film and its refreshing focus on gay life over the age of 30 in small town USA. If it’s a stretch to imagine a world so tolerant, a small town in which not a single citizen claims a shred of bigotry, it’s still a pleasure to watch this fairy tale love story play out.

Big Eden opens Fri, Sep 28 at the Varsity (55 Bloor St W); call (416) 961-6303.