Monday, March 31, 2008

FILM: Shelter

On the recommendation of a friend who had caught it at Outfest, we saw the film Shelter this evening. What a beautiful film! To call it a coming-out story or a "gay surfer film", while true, would vastly oversimplify this film, which deals as much with the conflict of a young man trading dreams of art school against the obligations of supporting his struggling family. The protagonist, Zach, loves to surf, and surfing plays a big role in the film, but as one blogger said, to say that Shelter is about surfing is like saying that Brokeback Mountain was about animal husbandry. Like Brokeback Mountain, this coming out story is also set in a very atypical and unexpected context for a gay story (in this case, the California surfing subculture) and with characters whose situations make being gay especially difficult. Zach is the only son in a working-class family, with a disabled father, a deceased mother, an irresponsible sister, and her five-year-old son, for whom Zach is his only father figure. When Zach discovers an unexpected romance with the older brother of his best friend and surfer buddy, it threatens to be a life-shattering conflict. What is wonderful about this particular story is that it is not just a unidimensional conflict about acceptance or rejection of being gay. It is also about Zach pursuing his dreams of going to art school, and fulfilling his sense of obligation to his family to support his young nephew (both emotionally and financially). It is not a simplistic narrative of being true to himself by embracing his "gay self". For Zach, being true to himself includes his family values and his artistic aspirations, as well as his newly discovered romance, and so embracing his "true self" doesn't pull him in just one clear direction. Seeing how he resolves this makes a very satisfying story.

Shelter is not only a beautiful story, but is filled with great music and wonderful visual imagery. I was not at all surprised to find on IMDB'ing the film that its writer-director, Jonah Markowitz, while making his feature-length debut in those roles, had long film experience in the art department and production design. The film was visually beautiful to behold, not only a cinematic paean to surfing and California beaches, but a visual valentine to the town of San Pedro (a working-class suburb of Los Angeles dominated by its location on the port, and its Croatian and Italian immigrants of last century). Not only the set shots of the shiploading cranes in the port, the Vincent Thomas Bridge, the lighthouse and the rocky cliffs, but the tiny bungalows, McGowan's market, the Pacific Diner. (In checking Markowitz' IMDB creds, I was not surprised to see his production design credit in QuinceaƱera, another film that combined a gay sub-theme with traditional family values in a unique way, embedded in a visual valentine to a distinctive gritty neighborhood, in that case my own Echo Park. I also noticed that Jonah Markowitz seemed to have originally been Jonah Markovich, a Croatian-sounding name which made me wonder whether he grew up in San Pedro, but I later read he had originally thought of Long Beach as the setting, and only stumbled on San Pedro while location-scouting in the vicinity.) Zach's artwork, mostly expressed as distinctly artistic graffiti, creates some great visuals as well (if you're not too put off by the glorification of a brand of vandalism). And all of this visual beauty is nicely underscored by a bunch of well-chosen (mostly original?) tunes.

The lead actors, relative newcomer Trevor Wright as Zach, and Brad Rowe (who was the object of Sean Hayes' desire in Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss ten years ago), both do great jobs bringing their characters to life (especially impressive since I think both are straight). Wright is especially outstanding given all the emotional nuances that his character navigates through the film. Tina Holmes also adds depth in the supporting role of Zach's sister Jeannie, and Jackson Wurth is appropriately adorable as the nearly latchkey kid. This small indie film, which did well on the gay/lesbian film festival circuit last year, opened this weekend in a small number of screens in selected cities, and is also set to be shown on Here!TV cable channel next month. It is well worth seeking out, and I would enjoy seeing it again.

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