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Pride Thursday Throwback – ‘Big Eden,’ a middle-aged Montana romance from the turn of the millenium, still outstrips many modern gay romcoms

Big Eden, the award-winning 2000 middle-age gay love story from Thomas Bezucha, is too lovely to miss out on revisiting for this year’s Pride Month, so in a bonus June Thursday Throwback, we’re paying tribute to this bucolic treasure of a movie.

Big Eden, which took home awards at a number of film festivals in 2000 and saw a wider release in 2001, is an independent romantic comedy that has been in my regular rotation of queer comfort movies ever since it was first recommended to me. For this month’s installment of Third Thursday Throwback, I rewatched this personal favorite and dug into all the things that make it a must-see for anyone who loves a rom-com. Third Thursday Throwback is a monthly Subjectify column that encourages our writers to escape the trappings of time and review something that is by no means current, but is still worth talking about.

Personally, I adore a rom-com. I quote When Harry Met Sally more often than just about anything else, and could spend hours explaining why it’s a travesty that French Kiss isn’t more well-known or readily available to stream. I rewatch The Proposal with a frequency that is probably alarming, and second only to the frequency with which I rewatch The Lost Boys, which one could argue is actually the gayest rom-com of all. But that’s another article.

I’ve always found middle-aged rom-com protagonists particularly interesting. Even as a teenager, movies about older characters finding love were something that I was drawn to. It didn’t occur to me until several years after I came out (as a relatively late-blooming bisexual) that there might be a deeper reason for this long-standing appreciation. Something about the idea of it never being too late; that even if you did miss out on those mythical golden years of your youth by playing the ill-fitting role of a straight person, there was still plenty of time.

“Don’t worry!” older protagonists always seemed to say. “There’s still happiness to be found even if it takes you a little longer to find it than the high-school sweethearts and the 22 year old fashion editors in million dollar New York lofts who tend to be the focus of all the other rom-coms!”

(Those are rom-coms I do still enjoy, mind you—but the story of a romantically challenged 22 year old catching feelings for their friend with benefits just isn’t comforting the way that a movie about an unlucky-in-love 40, 50, or 60-something catching feelings for their friend with benefits is. Even now, in my mid-30’s and having been married for a couple of years, stories about middle-aged romance still hold a special kind of comfort for me. Then again, I might be psychoanalyzing myself too deeply—perhaps I just relate to these older characters as a side effect of my having had the personality of a cranky grandpa yelling at kids to get off his stoop since I was a 12 year old girl. But I digress.)

If I were to put together an ideal rom-com checklist, it would consist of only three points:

  1. Middle-aged protagonist(s)
  2. Friendship comes first
  3. Intense pining

Those three things will get me sitting eagerly in front of a screen every time, without fail. All three of these things just so happen to be features of Big Eden, but they are not the things that initially lead me to it.

During Pride Month of 2016, I asked the internet at large (or, more accurately, the several thousand people who followed me on Tumblr at the time) to recommend their favorite queer movies, with two caveats: I only wanted movies with unambiguously happy endings, and I especially wanted suggestions that weren’t solely focused on affluent white gay men for a change.

(While I’ll gladly watch a sad gay movie, sometimes I just want to enjoy some happy queer feelings, you know? Fellow Subjectify writer Megan Mortmain knows—she talked about it a little bit over here in her article for this month’s Pride throwback.)

Related: Third Thursday Throwback – ‘Breakfast with Scot’ is a sweet queer family comedy about hockey and healing your inner child

After I put out my call, upwards of ten people recommended Big Eden. I’d never heard of it at the time, but it quickly moved to the top of my to-watch list after one person used the magic words: there’s so much pining.

Once I’d tracked it down, I hit play without a single idea what the story was about, and… honestly, at first I thought that maybe everyone had missed my second caveat. The lead character is a fairly well-off white man, as is the character who initially seemed to be his love interest. But I’m glad to say that it didn’t take long for me to realize that my worries on that front were unfounded—not to mention that it also ticks every box on my ideal rom-com checklist.

Written and directed by Thomas Bezucha (the same filmmaker behind The Family Stone, whose next directing credit is Marvel’s Secret Invasion) and shot on-location in some truly breathtaking parts of Montana, Big Eden stars Arye Gross (Castle’s M.E. Sidney Perlmutter) as Henry Hart, a successful New York-based artist who returns to his rural hometown (the titular Big Eden) after his grandfather Sam — affectionately nicknamed Sam-pa, and played by veteran character actor George Coe — suffers from a stroke.

While in town, he reunites with his childhood friend and decades-long crush Dean (White Collar lead Tim DeKay), who has just moved back to Big Eden with his two sons following a divorce.

On my first watch, I assumed I knew where the story was going once Dean’s character was introduced—at first through dialogue, as Henry meets and has a cute interaction with one of his sons without realizing who he is. “Ah,” I thought. “Henry will help newly-single Dean to look after his sons, and Dean will realize that Henry is what has been missing in his life, and it will end with them all living together by the lake where Henry grew up.”

It would be the perfect set up for a romantic story, after all, and one I still would have ultimately enjoyed.

However, as Henry and Dean reconnect—even, as I expected, spending time with Dean’s kids—it quickly becomes clear that while Dean does harbor some complicated feelings for Henry in return, he’s not truly prepared to deal with them. And he’s ultimately not the love interest we should be rooting for.

That role goes to a man named Pike Dexter, the socially anxious owner of Big Eden’s general store, who’s had his own crush on Henry since high school, but is far too shy to have ever done anything about it. Pike is played by Indigenous Canadian actor Eric Schweig (best known as Uncas in The Last of the Mohicans) and is so effortlessly charming despite his utter inability to string a sentence together in front of Henry that you can’t help but immediately hope Henry forgets all about the other guy. Dean who?

(Actually, if you’re like me and suffer from Incurable Winchester Derangement Syndrome, this seems like the right moment to note that you might recognize Schweig as Sergeant Phillips from Supernatural’s season 13 episode “Tombstone,” one of that show’s gayest, rom-commiest episodes of all time. When I made this connection, long after I’d seen both Big Eden and the “Tombstone” episode many times, I absolutely screamed.)

Though it’s never stated outright, it seems likely that this hope for Henry to shift his focus away from Dean is one shared by old family friend Grace (Oscar-winner Louise Fletcher), who lovingly badgers Pike into agreeing to deliver meals prepared by town busybody Widow Thayer (Nan Martin) to the culinarily challenged Henry and Sam. While she claims this is just to avoid the widow sticking her nose into Henry’s business every day, she makes a point of insisting that Pike be the one to do it, even when another local man readily offers his assistance. I sense a matchmaker.

(Sidebar: it’s a deeply amusing feature of this film that the entire town of Big Eden seems to be in complete agreement that Widow Thayer is an unbearable if well-meaning gossip and busybody, all while having absolutely zero self awareness of their own constant meddling.)

While the story would already be sweet enough if Pike simply went on to deliver the meals as planned until finally allowing himself to open up and get closer to Henry, once again the story takes an unexpected turn. Because, as it turns out, the Widow Thayer is not a good cook. The food she’s been handing off to Pike to bring to Henry and Sam — still recovering from a stroke, and with a heart condition to consider as well — is not only unappetizing, but also wildly unhealthy.

And so, armed with an old copy of The Joy of Cooking that he finds tucked away in his store’s small lending library, Pike secretly begins replacing their meals with things he’s prepared himself, sharing the Widow’s meals with his dog so that nothing goes to waste.

When I tell you that this part of the movie stopped me in my tracks on a first watch, I really mean it. I had to hit pause when he pulled the recipe book from the shelf and take a moment to collect myself.

It’s about the yearning, gang. It’s about the desire to feed the people you care about, and feed them well. It’s about acts of service as a love language, and how acts of kindness performed in secret, without hope of reciprocation or even of thanks, can change people for the better.

Because Pike comes alive from this point onward. He’s still shy — that’s not a character flaw, it’s just a personality trait, and this film gets another tick in the favorites column for understanding that — but just having this outlet for all the love he feels makes him carry himself differently, even before he fully accepts that that’s what it is. I already mentioned how outstanding Eric Schweig is in this role, but I really need to mention it again, because his performance is just gorgeous from start to finish.

Soon, Pike even enlists the help of the group of retired cowboys who spend their days hanging around his storefront, sending them out to catch fish for him to cook. He learns to make radish rose garnishes. He orders cooking magazines and researches recipes and arranges to have special produce delivered.

The old men rally around Pike, doing all they can to quietly encourage him toward Henry without pushing him too far beyond his comfort zone. Even the Widow Thayer, having realized that her meals were being intercepted, joins in.

Despite believing that Henry and Dean are involved more deeply than they are, Pike continues to make sure that Henry and his grandfather have everything they need, and when the cowboys ask him why he’s doing all of this for Henry – a rhetorical question, given that they’re all very aware of how Pike feels for him by this stage – he tells them honestly, “I just want things to be nice for him.”

And that’s what it all boils down to. Pike isn’t helping in order to gain anything; he’s not doing all this because he thinks it will make Henry return his feelings, or because he’s trying to impress anyone. He’s being kind because he wants Henry to be happy. He wants things to be nice for him.

And what does Pike get told by the old men after he says this?

“We want things to be nice for you too, buddy.”

God!!! I need a minute.

I want things to be nice for Pike, too.

(I know I made fun of these townspeople and their meddling, but to be completely honest, if I saw all this happening in front of me, I’d be just as bad. Just thinking about standing there in Pike’s cluttered kitchen, seeing how he’s not only been secretly preparing thoughtfully chosen meals for the man he’s in love with and his grandfather, but how he’s also taught himself to cook in the process, and learned to love the act of loving selflessly? I’d put down the stick I’d been whittling — because I whittle in this scenario — and say, “Y’know what? This is it, fellas. This is the height of romance. If Henry doesn’t figure out what’s going on and lay one on Pike soon, I’m gonna throw hands.” But that’s enough rambling self-insert fanfiction for now.)

While all of this has been going on, with Pike finally agreeing to have dinner with Henry and their friendship finally blooming, Henry and Dean have been spending a lot of time together as well, falling back into what seem like old patterns of their teenage years. There’s a clear mutual attraction, and it seems for a moment to be leading toward a deeper relationship between them, only for Dean to admit that while he wants to be with Henry, he can’t.

Even though it had been clear from early on that whatever happened between them would not last, this moment hurts to see. There’s a deep pain in Dean; a dissonance that he can’t seem to shake, and that I would have liked to see explored a little more deeply.

Dean’s journey within the film acts as a sad counterpoint to both Henry and Pike, who both encounter nothing but unconditional support from their friends and family, even those who are operating on assumptions rather than known facts. Unlike them, Dean doesn’t seem to have anyone other than Henry to talk to, and their past is so fraught and tangled that their few conversations about what he’s going through are set up to fail.

Though it is left somewhat to subtext, a moment toward the end of the film strongly implies that Dean has finally come to terms with his feelings for Henry, and is ready to tell him so — but settles for friendship when he realizes he’s missed his chance.

I won’t give away too much more — I do want you to watch this hidden gem of a movie, after all — but I don’t think it’s a surprise at this point to say that after a slow build of feelings on Henry’s side, a whole lot of pining on Pike’s, and a truly admirable amount of interference from the kind-hearted community of Big Eden, they do find their way to one another by the end.

Which brings me to one last thing I would be remiss not to mention: within the world of Big Eden, homophobia simply doesn’t get a chance to rear its ugly head.

There are two instances of what could be attributed to an internalized fear of homophobia — the first being Henry’s inability to come out to Sam, who, it should be noted makes it clear that he not only knows, but also accepts and is proud of who Henry is, and is simply waiting for Henry to tell him; the second being Dean’s struggle with his sexuality, which he does attempt to deal with, but seems to lack the tools and support he needs. That said, both of these instances are presented as personal emotional conflicts which both men want to be able to move past.

Even today in 2022, it’s rare to find queer media that doesn’t have the same homophobic background radiation that we’ve all learned to live with baked into the plot. A throwaway bigoted comment to quickly establish an antagonist is almost guaranteed; a reference to some past trauma to drive the characters forward is more likely than not. The only exceptions that immediately come to mind are Schitt’s Creek, where homophobia was deliberately excluded as a plot device as a statement that such bigotry shouldn’t even exist, and Big Eden.

While it’s not always a good idea to handwave this aspect of queer life away in media (and it can even be arguably irresponsible to do so in some instances) it does, in this case, deliver a movie that is just as comforting and warm as one of Pike’s home-cooked meals.

I hesitate to say that Big Eden walked so Schitt’s Creek could run, but it absolutely feels like a precursor, because at no point in the almost two hour film is there even a hint of disapproval from any of the supporting characters. And again, I must stress, Big Eden is set in a Western mountain town, in a very red state, in the year 1999.

(In a particularly funny scene early on, after the Widow Thayer has realized her error in trying to set Henry up with every available woman she knows from church, she immediately pivots to introducing him to all the eligible men. “See? I got lawyers for you!” she tells him, pointing out a man who drove up from Missoula to come to a party she’d put together for the express purpose of finding him a boyfriend. The expression on Henry’s face is priceless.)

Bizarrely, a few old reviews complained about this same fact; they said that the retired cowboys, the meddling church lady, and everyone else in this small Montana town all being perfectly okay with queer people in their midst was far too unrealistic to take seriously, but frankly that says more about the reviewer than the film to me.

This film still has some heartache, after all. It doesn’t shy away from difficult conversations or painful truths. Not everyone gets a perfect, sunny end. The only thing that can truly be called unrealistic is the absence of cruelty, and to be unable to imagine that as a possibility is unbearably bleak, to say the least.

Big Eden is a hopeful version of reality; a fantasy, perhaps, but an aspirational, not unreasonable one. As writer/director Thomas Bezucha said in this 2015 interview, “Big Eden exists wherever there are people of good will.”

Maybe it’s just the rom-com endorphins talking, but I’m optimistic that we’ll get there.

Big Eden is streaming on Prime Video in the US and the UK. Use JustWatch to find Big Eden in your region.