Aug 15, 2010

[Movies] Shelter (2007)

Shelter (2007)The limited history of gay cinema has resulted in a number of cliches and tropes constantly repeated in many different LGBT films. I suppose it can't be helped - gay culture is uniquely identified with a number of these ideas and concepts and thus it becomes very easy to revisit them time and time again in order for the movie to clearly feel queer in that sense. You know what I'm referring to, right?

There's the presence of AIDS and HIV in the story whether a character contracts it directly or deals with getting tested. There's substance abuse on the club circuit as being another recurring theme. There's coming out, which is always a good story to tell. There's the need for sassy wit and humor in order to remind everyone that gay lingo is real. There are the fag hags and the old wise queens and the slutty boy toys and all those other stock characters that populate such movies. Sometimes they're used effectively but many times they just feel a tad overused or not well thought-out.

This movie surprised me in how it generally avoided a lot of these tropes without resorting to becoming a chick flick with guys in it. There's not question about this movie being about homosexual characters but it didn't allow itself to get bogged down or distracted by the kind of plot devices that Hollywood assumes we gay viewers will expect and require in order for the movie to make sense.

Shelter is the directorial debut of Jonah Markowitz and was the winner of the 2009 GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Film - Limited Release. It also won the Best New Director and Favorite Narrative Feature at the Seattle Lesbian & Gay Film Festival and the People's Choice Award For Best New Feature at the Vancouver Queer Film Festival.

At the heart of the story is Zach (Trevor Wright), an aspiring artist in California. He once had a shot at going to art school but opted not to go in order to help take care of his sister Jeanne (Tina Holmes), her son Cody (Jackson Wurth) and their disabled father. Zach contributes to the household by working as a short-order cook at a nearby restaurant. Outside of his obligations, he remains quite the free spirit as evidenced by his painting of murals to express his artistic side and escaping to the beach to surf.

Zach is still somewhat involved with his girlfriend Tori (Katie Walder) although it's not overly clear how well things are going. Things start to shift when Shaun (Brad Rowe), the older brother of Zach's best friend Gabe (Ross Thomas) comes home to address a bad case of writer's block that has been bothering him. Zach and Shaun soon start to bond over surfing and a few shared drinking sessions and in time the friendship appears to be shifting into something more.

The movie was interesting in that it was really just a simple narrative with some great shots and great actors that meshed really well together. There's a certain elegance in its simplicity and the no-frills way things were presented certainly made it feel like a slice-of-life kind of movie that allows the viewer to slip into the lives of these characters and feel like part of the scenery. You're there along for the ride, but the events don't feel too surreal to make you think you're too far away from the scene to really relate to things.

On their own, Wright and Rowe are rather plain as far as actors go. However when put together, their on-screen chemistry felt wonderfully genuine and it made the whole thing very pleasurable to watch. You could feel how the relationship progressed from being casual friends to each of them discovering how they really felt for the other in a very good way. And the director didn't have to resort to extended, meaningless sex scenes in order to convey this progression. He relied more on conversation and knowing looks and lingering stares. Now that's how you show an authentic romance, even within the context of gay characters. We don't have to be 100% about fucking!

The movie had a number of interest scenes that really spoke volumes about the characters without resorting to words. And I'm not talking about your stereotypical attempts to be an art film by subjecting the audience to bizarre montages set to heavy synth music or something. They were nicely put together sequences that still helped move the story along but also tried to give us viewers more insight into their internal struggles and motivations.

In the end, it's all about finding your place in the world - that little corner of space that you consider to be your shelter away from the harsh realities of the world. Zach is a very well constructed character with very real challenges and burdens to deal with and the prospects of love that scare him. The movie was done in such a way that the conflict was handled very well without getting too heavy nor becoming too trite either. And it didn't feel forced either - they're the kind of problems and struggles I can imagine a lot of my friends finding themselves in, all set against the one trope of the movie, this being the experience of realizing one's homosexuality.

Shelter is a great film and a wonderful example of how we can tell great LGBT stories without resorting to too many gay movie tropes. It gets 4 beautiful murals out of a possible 5.
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  1. Shelter is one great gay movie. It doesn't highlight sex or even homosexuality (as opposed to the usual gay movies released in the film industry). It simply tells the story of two people falling in love, who happens to be both men. That's what sets this movie apart. I'm looking for the original DVD but I can't find it (perhaps because it's an indie film in the US).

  2. I totally get what you mean - sometimes LGBT movies become overly obsessed with reminding everyone it has gay characters in it.

    I'd love to find an original as well, however I feel the only way to get a copy is to order online. These movies just aren't marketable enough for local stores to order in significant enough quantities.