"You'll never get what you want unless you take it."
"Zach, you're not a fag, right?" asks sister Jeanne. "I don't want to deal with that."
That statement is as upsetting as it sounds, and comes eerily close to a sentiment one of my best friend's experienced when he told his sister he was gay. To anyone who has ever thought about coming out of the closet--or knows someone who has--that rejection is the dagger that keeps them from truly living. The question is delivered with such self-assuredness by Jeanne, who perfectly channels her selfishness into razor sharp, guilt-inducing words.
And in Shelter--the beautiful directorial debut from Jonah Markowitz (who also wrote the script) and the first film produced under the here! network's Independent Film Initiative--it's a threat to the only family connection that still matters to 22-year-old Zach (Trevor Wright). He lives with older sister Jeanne (Tina Holmes)--the boyfriend-hopping single mom to 5-year-old Cody (Jackson Wurth)--who won't be winning any Mother of the Year Awards. The siblings work odd jobs, and Zach has become Cody's only positive parental influence. One night when Cody was scolded, he went into Uncle Zach's room: "He hasn't left since. It's the only place he can sleep."
With Zach's mother dead and his father distant, he feels stuck in San Pedro, his only escape being the ocean and his art. When best friend Gabe (Ross Thomas) returns to college, Zach considers going back to on-again/off-again girlfriend Tori (Katie Walder). But things get confusing when he bumps into Gabe's older brother Shaun (Brad Rowe), who has temporarily left his L.A. life for some relaxation at home. The two start surfing together, much to the chagrin of Jeanne: "You know about him, right?" she asks. "I don't think he's the best guy to be hanging out with all day half-naked...I don't want Cody around that."
It sounds like a set-up we've repeatedly seen, and it many ways it is. But while you may be able to guess where some of the story is headed--and even though the ending is a slight stretch--the execution by Markowitz and the cast is so heartfelt, it's impossible not to love every second of this journey. This film is many things at once: a love story, a coming out tale, a young man's struggle to stick up for himself and a statement on the importance of family.
The cast is universally excellent. Wright performs exactly how you would expect a mature, questioning 22-year-old to. Like so many of the actors here, he's so good--and so subtle--with his expressions. He and Rowe have believable, electric chemistry. The charming Rowe (who many may remember from Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss) is equally assured with his eyes, and his small choices--like the slight grab of Trevor's sweatshirt--are so effective (the scenes of their courtship will bring a smile to your face). Holmes may be the bad guy, but she's so much more. She breathes so much complexity into what could have easily been a one-note role, filling Jeanne with just enough humanity to make her somewhat sympathetic--you want to hate her hard, but you can't.
Even the supporting players get time to shine: Thomas provides some of the film's biggest laughs (I'm totally borrowing "low-carb fag food"), taking part in two of the more memorable scenes: his surprise return home and his diner scene, where he asks a hilarious question of Zach. And Walder adds plenty of depth to Tori, another character that could have easily been one-dimensional. She has one of my favorite lines: "You don't belong to people forever."
All of these characters have depth, a testament to the script. Markowitz puts the actors in plenty of memorable arguments, none of which result in prolonged, unnecessary subplots that lesser films would indulge. There's a perfect balance of heartache, hope and humor--this never gets too heavy handed, and knows when (and how) to make you laugh (the horror movie music when Zach kisses Tori? Priceless!). Another one of the film's strengths is that its message applies to more than just coming out; when Zach says "I just don't know if this is what I want...for good," it speaks to so many struggles in life that anyone can relate to--no matter how old you are, no matter what your sexuality is.
The cinematography by Joseph White also deserves mention. He beautifully works with the beach as a backdrop, and makes you feel why surfing becomes Zach's sanctuary--we escape to the waves right along with him. And the music is a perfect match, from J. Peter Robinson's original score to the well-placed songs, which fit perfectly with the reflective points in the story. (And that's kinda shocking for me, considering I usually change the station when I hear anything that resembles Jack Johnson or Dave Matthews.)
When I sat down to watch this, it was at the end of a bad week that had me distracted, detached and depressed. Within minutes, my mind was clean and clear. I was drawn into every aspect of this movie--I didn't want it to end. When it did, I had forgotten why I had been so sad, suddenly energized with the uplifting experience, the movie refreshing my spirit. This is one of those rare films that I'll put in my "therapy collection", a feel-good gem that will undoubtedly earn repeat viewings in my lifetime.
Presented in a 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer, Shelter looks pretty solid all around. The surfing sequences are particularly strong, and outside of a few minor issues (a little lighting or coloring issues here and there), there are no major drawbacks.
The film offers 5.1 and 2.0 surround options. The 5.1 track doesn't do much at all with the rear speakers, which could have been used to better effect during the beach scenes. But the dialogue is the main priority here, and on that count, it's fine.
Leading the way is the feature-length audio commentary with director Jonah Markowitz and lead actors Trevor Wright and Brad Rowe--who are both straight (sorry, fellas! I know it hurts...). They talk about the constant Brokeback-esque questions about what it was like to do love scenes with another man. "A lot of people just find it so unbelievable that you can be straight and play a gay character," notes Rowe. "I've also played a serial killer, and a stalker and a policeman..." Markowitz says much of the film's story and dialogue came from his own experiences, and it shows.
It's a fun, animated listen with all three laughing their way through memories of the shoot--from Rowe's refusal to surf (Wright did his own surfing) to the first kiss (Wright apparently asked afterward, "How do you do that with someone with a beard?!") to the "sweet, sweet love" of the first sex scene (Rowe jokes that he made a break for the food service table during his off-camera oral sex performance). There's also frequent reference to the cast and crew's running joke, the film's "Big gay love montage" (says Markowitz: "When it was sunset, we would always run and be like, 'We've gotta get something for the BGLM!'"). In the commentary, Markowitz mentions some cut scenes, so it would have been nice to see those.
Up next is the here! Backlot feature "The Making of Shelter" (24:00). This behind-the-scenes look makes the best of its short running time, and features interviews with Markowitz, producer J.D. Disalvatore and all of the main cast members. "To me this film is not a gay film," says Markowitz. "This film is about a person, a character who's learning to take control of his life, and learning that he can stand up for what he wants." He explains his three worlds of the story, and interestingly notes that the surfer world is "not a big gay scene." Holmes also explains her outlook on Jeanne, giving a nice window into a strong actor's thought-process: "I was interested in the family dynamic...even people you love, you can really impact each other in harmful ways, ways that are particularly difficult to disengage from. Families have a big pull on us, for better or worse."
Also here is the film's trailer and trailers for other TLA releases, a photo gallery and a music video of Shane Mack's "Lie to Me".
A love story, a coming out story, a story about family and standing up for yourself, Shelter is a gem that sneaks up on you and gives you a big ol' hug. Sure it follows a familiar path, but I loved every second of it. Led by a moving script and outstanding performances from the entire cast, it beautifully weaves hope, heartache and humor. It has instantly become one of my favorite films, gay-themed or otherwise. Highly Recommended.