I first saw Shelter on its theatrical release in 2007. The film had gotten raves when shown at “Reeling” (Chicago’s gay and lesbian film festival), and I was in the mood for a nice boy-meets-boy story. The film is a little more than that.
Zach (Trevor Wright) dreamed of going to Cal Arts (the California Institute of the Arts), but family obligations got in the way – his mother died, his father’s not in good shape after injuring his back, and his sister Jeanne (Tina Holmes) is working her way through a string of boyfriends while Zach seems to be the one who’s actually raising her son, Cody (Jackson Wurth), who’s soon to start kindergarten. Zach spends his time, when not at his dead-end job as a short order cook, doing street art and surfing. His best friend Gabe (Ross Thomas), who comes from the high-rent district, is off on an extended trip, but while Gabe’s away his older brother Shaun (Brad Rowe) is down from L.A. Shaun taught Zach to surf. Shaun is also gay, but that doesn’t stop Zach from spending time with him. The inevitable happens, but the road there is more than a little rough.
I sometimes worry about picking up a DVD if I’ve seen the film on the large screen – something to do with scale. If anything, Shelter is better close up, notwithstanding the vistas of the endless Pacific that form such an important part of Zach’s world. It’s an intimate film, and all the stronger for that.
Those Pacific vistas provide a strong contrast to the rest of Zach’s life, which is pretty claustrophobic, from the tiny bedroom he shares with Cody to the kitchen in which he flips burgers to the industrial view from his rooftop studio. He wants more but doesn’t know how to get it, how to balance the obligation he feels to his family with his dreams. We learn that he had been accepted to Cal Arts and turned down a scholarship because of his family situation. He didn’t see any other options. And then Shaun happens – and that perhaps does more to sum up Zach than anything else I can say: Zach is someone to whom things happen.
It’s Zach’s story, and Trevor Wright deserves every accolade he received for his characterization, and should have gotten more. It’s a subtle, nuanced, revelatory performance, a coming of age story of a very special kind: we see a young man who made it through high school, but is not yet completely formed. He’s not sure who he is, outside of his family (which, ultimately, is not the most positive force in Zach’s life). He goes along with the flow, vaguely unhappy, and when he’s more or less forced to deal with his feelings for Shaun, his whole world starts to unravel. Brad Rowe as Shaun gives a stunningly understated performance: one gets the feeling that the affair took him by surprise, but he’s smart enough – wise enough, perhaps – to understand that Zach must come to him on his own. He only makes one real move to influence Zach, when he tells him, in the confrontation that leads to their (temporary) break-up, “You won’t get what you want unless you reach out and take it.” And there’s Zach’s whole conflict – he’s never realized that is a possibility.
This is not, strictly speaking, a “romance.” Romance as a genre partakes more than a little of fantasy, and Shelter is much too real for that, from the sometimes gritty setting to the naturalism of the acting. It’s a love story, to be sure, but it’s one of the most down-to-earth love stories you’ve ever seen: what we see is not a “romance” in the typical Hollywood sense, but a relationship developing between two men who are moving, unconsciously, toward something profoundly important to both of them. It’s a journey marked by hesitation, distress, and overwhelming need on Zach’s part and patience, good humor, and strength on Shaun’s.
And yet, something that could have become angst ridden, or worse, mawkishly sentimental, while developing enough substance to make it worthwhile, also remains somewhat light hearted, a function, I think, of the characters of Zach and Shaun. That quality is most typified in the “reconciliation” scene, which starts off with an old walkie-talkie that Zach and Gabe had used when they were younger: it starts making noise as Shaun is packing to return to L.A. (Anton Chekhov’s dictum in play: “If you hang a picture in Act I, you must use it in Act III.” Shaun and Zach had been playing with the walkie-talkies earlier in the story.) The scene that follows is a distillation of the film, with Zach working his way through to finally asking for what he wants, while Shaun, with marked patience supported by that good humor (he knows what’s coming – you can see it in his look of triumph when the walkie-talkie first squawks), waits for Zach to come to him.
It’s a “must see.”
Jonah Markowitz, Shelter: here! Films, 2007; ASIN: B0013D8LCW; US $24.98
For full cast and credits, see the listing at http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0942384/ .