Friday Film Review: Shelter
Genre: GLBT Romance
This movie had been mentioned so many times on other movie reviews here and at Netflix that I knew I needed to see it. I’m probably going to disappoint a lot of people with my grade but while I liked it, it ultimately comes across to me as a candy fluff film. Sweet, likeable, nice while it lasts but not something that will stick with me very long.
“Forced to give up his dreams of art school, Zach (Trevor Wright) spends his days working a dead-end job and helping his needy sister (Tina Holmes) care for her son (Jackson Wurth). In his free time he surfs, draws and hangs out with his best friend, Gabe (Ross Thomas), who lives on the wealthy side of town. When Gabe’s older brother, Shaun (Brad Rowe), returns home, he is drawn to Zach’s selflessness and talent. Zach falls in love with Shaun while struggling to reconcile his own desires with the needs of his family.”
This is an indie movie that doesn’t look like one. I’ve watched a lot of Indie films and usually end up accepting the shortcuts the directors are forced to deal with. From what the director and two main actors say in the commentary, the film was shot in three weeks, mostly on location with certain scenes being grabbed and filmed when the opportunity was there. Honestly, except for the subject matter, it’s not obvious. Or not *that* obvious. Some scenes – like Zach and his girlfriend Tori on a bluff at the beach or Zach and Shaun talking in the garden at Shaun’s parents’ house – were shot racing for the last bit of sun and are absolutely beautiful. The montage shots of the ocean are lovely too – even if I’m not sure why those shots are there beyond showing that Zach loves to surf. Some directors actually thrive under tight shooting conditions and – at least in this case – Jonah Markowitz is one of them.
“Shelter” has a great sense of place and culture. These are surfers living in SoCal. Gabe is almost a stereotype of it and I could easily see him calling everyone “Duuuuude” and actually meaning it. He, Zach and Shaun come across as natural young men – interested in surfing, drinking beer, telling jokes and getting laid. Zach and his sister Jeanne ooze a working class vibe. Life has obviously not been as easy for them as for Shaun and Gabe and it shows – from the slightly run down SUV Zach drives to the ratty house with a concrete back yard to Jeanne’s hard edge desperation to get out of there, whatever the cost.
The film doesn’t deal in obvious gay stereotypes. There are no drag queens, no queer best friends, decorating is never mentioned and the fashion sense is young male grab-whatever-shirt-doesn’t-smell-the-most. There is no sashaying, no limp wrists, no clubbing – in fact there is no camp at all. Zach and Shaun could be any sexual orientation males. It’s obviously a gay themed movie but it doesn’t come across to me as one that is being strictly marketed to the GLBT community – it’s very open to anyone and a film that I think anyone can enjoy.
So, what could I possibly find to harsh about and call fluff? Shaun is out and comfortable about his sexuality. Zach has had a long term girlfriend even if hints are dropped that their relationship isn’t rosy – tepid and more like friends is a good way to describe it – but has he ever thought about being attracted to men? I didn’t get that feeling and his acceptance of his new sexual reality seems too easy. Yeah, he wavers a touch and push-pulls a tiny bit but those scenes seem more obligatory than visceral. Shaun is also extremely accommodating of Zach’s am I/aren’t I? moments – perhaps because he’s older and already been through it. Still he’s waiting with open arms and a lack of “are you sure *this* time as opposed to the others.” Were I he, I’d be a little wary for a bit longer.
The movie also avoids getting too deeply into conflicts. Zach is afraid of what others will say if his new relationship becomes known. He’s f*cking his best friend’s older brother and that best friend is obviously into p*ssy. But when Gabe and Zach finally talk, Gabe is all “fine, it’s cool, I’m the one you used to come talk to, is it true guys give the best head, are you attracted to that guy walking down the street?” easy with it. Even the whole “you’re involved with my sibling” aspect of it is glossed over. Jeanne seems like she’s going to be the major sticking point after she says things like she doesn’t want her son around Shaun or “why are you spending all this time with Shaun/you’re not a fag, are you?” to Zach. But in the major, final scene of the film, she caves and says almost nothing. Even Tori, Zach’s girlfriend, seems hardly to care. And we never see any scenes of these people finding out for sure about Zach’s new reality. Each of them somehow seems to already know what’s going on when they finally have these conversations with Zach. That’s some gossip grapevine going on in this town.
One thing I do like is how what turns out to be the main source of conflict isn’t the typical gay movie one. Zach’s character toys with the dreaded martyr syndrome. He puts off his dreams of going to art school in order to work a lousy, low paying job. His older sister plays on his sense of responsibility to pawn off the care of her 5 year old son while she goes out and parties all night. I like the relationship between Zach and his nephew Cody – who is an incredibly unselfconscious young actor – and the final resolution of who keeps Cody and what his future might be is positive. What makes this whole subplot a win for me is that this could happen to anyone, anywhere. It says that not every crisis in a GLBT life revolves around AIDS/coming out/discrimination.
This is a positive take on coming out movies. It’s got characters to care about, is lovely to look at with swirling ocean waves and gorgeous sunsets, offers some humor and laughs, ends on a positive note and no one dies. But it also skims over a lot of conflict potential like a stone skipping across water and all the characters seem way too accepting of gays. Sure this would be great if this was always how it happens in real life but as portrayed, it’s like a gay friendly AU. It’s head and shoulders above lots of other gay movies I’ve seen, yet I can’t help but say if I were watching the same movie only with hetero characters, I’d have been left feeling ultimately let down with the fluff factor.