It’s funny how whenever a
movie comes along with gay central characters, eager audiences and press alike
tend to nickname the project “the gay cowboy movie” or “the gay slasher movie”
or, in the case of Shelter, “the gay
surfer movie. ”
Truth is, Shelter is as much about surfing as Brokeback Mountain was about animal
husbandry. But fortunately for gay film lovers starved for a decent gay
romance, much like Brokeback, it is a
well-made, fresh, and genuinely touching story of first love.
Zach (Trevor Wright)
spends his days after graduating high school flipping burgers, taking care of
his nephew, and working on his art. When he’s not babysitting, Zach spends much
of his time alone in the sun-bleached, lower class industrial neighborhoods of
town, skateboarding, tagging warehouses, and thinking about his uninspiring
future. All his friends are off to college, his father is slowly losing his
ability to take care of himself, his unmarried sister takes little
responsibility for her own son, and his relationship with his girlfriend is
rocky at best.
Zach’s escape is the open
sea, where he rides the waves alone. But when picking up a board at his wealthy
best friend’s supposedly empty beach house, he runs into older brother Shaun
(Brad Rowe), a writer who has come down from Los Angeles to cool off after a bad breakup.
The two loners haven’t seen each other for years and they strike up a cautious
friendship superficially rooted in surfing.
Trevor Wright (left) & Brad Rowe
Though neither of the men
mentions it, Shaun is gay and the fact is generally well known around town.
Zach reveals that he read Shaun’s first novel and liked it, which takes Shaun
by surprise. His cautious admittance of knowledge about Shaun’s sexuality and
interest in his life changes the trajectory of their relationship, and before
long the two share a drunken but chaste kiss at the beach house.
After this tentative
connection, Zach panics and withdraws. And to further complicate matters, his
sister Jeanne (played by Six Feet Under
alum Tina Holmes), who has heard that he’s been hanging out with Shaun, demands
to know if her brother is “a fag” (Zach denies it) and says that she doesn’t
want her son being around a gay man like Shaun — this, of course, despite the
fact that Shaun and Zach are far more attentive to the child than she is.
Aside from his clear
romantic interest in Zach, Shaun also encourages his new friend to pursue his
art and to reapply to California Institute of Arts, where Zach says he was
denied a much-needed scholarship the previous year. As Zach struggles to
navigate his deepening relationship with Shaun, his family drama, and his own
ambitions and dreams, he gradually transforms from a dutiful, quiet, and put-upon
youth to a vibrant, intelligent, and loving man.
Rowe (left) & Wright
Shelter stands head-and-shoulders above most other films in its
genre (gay romantic dramas, not “gay surfer movies”) thanks to its solid cast,
its intimate, kitchen-sink feel, and its reluctance to play to the clichés that
generally plague “coming out” movies.
Rowe in particular shines
here as the older, wiser, and almost impossibly good-natured Shaun. He’s sexy,
easygoing, and dignified, and seems incredibly at ease in his own skin, which
is not always the case when straight actors take on gay roles.
And relative newcomer
Wright’s detached, polite moodiness melts away beautifully as his character
develops, giving Zach a satisfying arc. Supporting players like Holmes and Ross
Thomas as Gabe, Zach’s straight best friend and Shaun’s younger brother (the
scene where Zach reluctantly comes out to Gabe is definitely a highlight), lend
the film an authentic, understated beach-town feel.
Ross Thomas (left) & Wright
Shelter’s avoidance of the standbys of coming-out movies makes an
otherwise familiar story feel fresh. There are no gay bars, no drugs, no drag
queens, no circuit anthems, no gay-bashings, no AIDS scares, and no screaming
parents to speak of. Sure, some of these elements will likely enter any gay
man’s life at some point or another, but Shelter’s
focus on Zach’s first love and how it fits into his working-class surroundings
lends a wonderful authenticity.