Where Judge Daryl Loomis is from, there's not much romance in the surf scene. The water is just too cold.
Everybody craves support and acceptance. Any race, religion, or sexual persuasion, this doesn't change. Without people around to take care of you when times are tough, it is easy to break down into deep depression and worse. To this end, writer/director Jonah Markowitz has crafted a very personal debut feature about two men falling in love on the Orange County beaches.
Facts of the Case
Zach (Trevor Wright) loves three things in this world: his art, his young nephew, and surfing. He grew up in San Pedro, CA, on the wrong side of the tracks, but was always welcome at his best friend's parents' mansion in Laguna Beach. He feels lost, though. His life is repetitive and his sister, who is utterly neglectful of her son, has forced all family responsibility onto him. If things stay like this, he will quickly spiral into a deep depression. One afternoon just like all the rest, Zach is doing his art and hitting the beach when Shaun (Brad Rowe), his best friend's older brother and the one who taught him to surf, shows up suddenly from Hollywood. As they reconnect, Zach realizes that he may not be exactly who he thought he was and that, through Shaun, he can finally find the love and support to follow his dreams.
Shelter is an appropriate title for this film about support and acceptance. Regardless of its gay-themed story and marketing, this idea is universal. Deep down, Zach only wants to make art. As many people who have pursued such things can understand, however, it is very hard to find support for such endeavors unless you're already making money at it. Until then, you are wasting your time. Eventually, these people believe what they're told but, because the drive to create doesn't go away, they become lost and depressed. The art school of his dreams rejected Zach, and his sister is determined to subvert his desires to keep him around playing surrogate father to his nephew. Zach well understands his familial obligations but can't balance that with his own desires. He's seen enough selfishness from his sister, who is too busy getting drunk and sleeping around to give a damn about her son, to not feel obligated to raise the child. Tough a shell as he's built for himself and as much as he wants to be strong for his nephew, he is breaking down inside.
This is only the case until he meets Shaun, who gives him shelter. He is an ear to listen to his troubles and a father figure that he never had. Still in the closet without even realizing it, Zach doesn't conceive of a romantic connection with Shaun, and doesn't realize that Shaun is openly gay (though, when Zach first sees Shaun, he eyes him with a stare that could melt glass). Shaun supports his art and supports him in general so that, after they have a few drinks and finally kiss, it is a very sweet, natural moment. Zach is understandably conflicted by this, but obviously enjoyed it. On the drive home, odd as he may feel, he smiles for the first time in the film, like a huge weight has been lifted from his shoulders. He tears himself up for a while but, when he finally comes to terms with his sexuality, he realizes that he's his own man with the right to make his own decisions. Now, he can balance what he needs with what others need from him. He can have a loving relationship, follow his dreams, and still take charge of his life enough to care for his nephew.
This, ultimately, is the theme that gives Shelter a broader appeal. Zach's nephew is everything to him. He treats him as his own and, when Zach finally comes out, he is most hurt by his sister's attitude that she doesn't want her son around "that kind of thing." All his friends accept his sexuality, but his sister just can't. Yet, her parenting is so abhorrent that she has no choice but to come to terms with her prejudices. Her only alternative is to abandon him, which she would clearly be willing to do if not for the strength of character of Zach and Shaun, both as individuals and as parental figures. There are those who would outright condemn the arrangement but, placed against the alternative, the choice is more than clear, it's inevitable. The kid is wonderful, and hasn't had his mother's homophobia pounded into him yet, so sees the relationship as utterly natural and is perfectly willing to accept his new daddies without ever having to say so.
Writer/director Jonah Markowitz handles his debut feature with care and sensitivity. He is obviously close to his story, and the writing has a very strong natural quality that makes Shelter very easy to watch. The actors are all very good, with Wright and Rowe as both the main focus and the strongest performances. They have a natural chemistry and look like a good couple that will be together for a long time raising a strong, independent young man. The direction and camerawork are very professional; there's nothing groundbreaking here, but Markowitz shows a lot of promise as a filmmaker. I have some problems with how the sister is treated; her utter villainy should not be so easily forgivable but, given the film's message is one of acceptance, I see what he was aiming for.
Here! Films has done a good job on their release of Shelter. The anamorphic transfer is crystal clear, showing the claustrophobia of San Pedro, the opulence of Laguna Beach, and the openness of the beach very well. The sound is also good. The dialogue is clear and the surround channels are full of the sounds of the waves. I won't vouch for the quality of music in the pop soundtrack, but it comes through strongly without overpowering the rest of the sound. The extras include a fun, interesting commentary from Markowitz, Wright, and Rowe, who describe the production and make fun of each other for mistaken choices in the film. A 20-minute featurette gives interviews with the cast and crew, describing their intentions with the story and telling funny stories about the production. This is a quality release of a promising debut film.
Shelter is a well-made film with strong performances and a good message. There will be those who dismiss the relationship and their ability to adequately raise this child, but this is an issue with people that one movie alone, no matter how good it is made to sound, will change.
Not guilty. While we're at it, since you're in California, why don't you guys get married? I don't know if I have the power as a DVD judge, but I'd be happy to officiate.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: here! Films
• Director's commentary
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