On paper, Big Eden could hardly sound less promising. It stars Ayre Gross, the kiss of death as a stock sidekick in such atrocious '80s comedies as Soul Man and The Experts. It takes place in the sort of idyllic mountain community that only exists on television shows like Northern Exposure, where everyone has good intentions and behaves like they know a camera is in the room. And its premise squeezes two movie-of-the-week stories into one package: The prodigal son returns from the big city to take care of an ailing relative, and he has yet to come out of the closet for fear of being ostracized. With all these strikes against it, writer-director Thomas Bezucha's debut feature works better than it has any right to, not because it avoids those pitfallson the contrary, Bezucha leaps headlong into thembut because its clichés are suffused with warmth, compassion, and not an ounce of cynicism. Big Eden believes in what it's slinging, and its sincerity and heart account for the shower of awards it received on the Gay & Lesbian Film Festival circuit. Of the uniformly fine performers, the most surprising is Gross, who has either grown into a more assured and mature performer in middle age or finally found a role that suits his range. He plays a gay New York City painter who bails out on a museum opening to take care of his grandfather, who has suffered a stroke. Returning to his quaint hometown in Montana, Gross confronts unresolved romantic feelings for Tim DeKay, an old high-school buddy who's now divorced with two kids. All the while, he's quietly courted by Eric Schweig, a painfully shy general-store clerk who expresses his feelings through the gourmet meals he delivers to Gross and his grandfather. Bezucha relies on his hero's obliviousness on all fronts. Not only does he misread Schweig's advances, but he also fails to notice that the townspeople know he's gay, and would accept him even if they didn't. Big Eden goes so far in disputing the notion that there's no safe haven for gays outside urban centers that it refashions small-town Montana as a veritable fantasy world between the coasts. But Bezucha and his cast invest this unlikely cultural oasis with enough humor and good feeling that it's tough to resist, even if it's impossible to accept at face value.