Gay coming-of-age films are a dime a dozen, and most of them are also worth only about that much. They’re tired, cliche-ridden, and a lot of times just a cheap excuse to show a lot of teenage flesh. But I watched the 2007 film Shelter today upon a wave of critical acclaim, not really expecting much, but as it turns out, it moved me very deeply.
The story centers around Zach, a post-high school kid who has a lot of ambition, but a lot of responsibilities. He spends his time surfing and tagging his artistic designs on blank surfaces around town. His mother is dead, and his father is some sort of invalid (though what his problem is is never really made very clear. He’s a surrogate father to his 5-year-old nephew, because his older sister (Quaker Maggie from seasons 4 and 5 of Six Feet Under) is irresponsible, has a lousy boyfriend that doesn’t really like her kid, and she never really got the maternal gene to begin with. What Zach really wants to do is go to Cal Arts and make a future for himself. He applied once, but was turned down (so it seems) and is afraid to apply again. And he loves his nephew like his own son.
Into this mix comes Zach’s best friend’s older brother, a freelance writer, and 12 years Zach’s senior. He’s decided to come down to Santa Barbara to spend some time alone, writing, in his family’s sprawling and ridiculously sunny mansion on the beach. What starts out as someone Zach can surf and get drunk with ends up becoming something much more than either of them anticipated. Eventually Zach is forced to make some very tough decisions regarding weighing his own future potential against his obligations to his family and his love for his nephew.
What I loved about Shelter was that the drama didn’t focus on whether or not Zach would embrace his homosexuality (as it makes clear only after we’ve gotten to know him, Zach’s lover was always gay), but how he would incorporate it into his life without losing those he loves the most. Of course he has some internal resistance, but this was handled, I felt, realistically, and with as little melodrama as possible. The most heart-wrenching scene in the movie for me was when Zach breaks down to his on-again, off-again girlfriend, and says, “The only reason I wish I wasn’t is because of you.” Zach is a natural care-giver; he can’t help it, it just comes naturally to him, and to realize that he can’t be everything to his girlfriend, and take care of her in every way that he wants to, just kills him. It was one of the most honest scenes in a film of this type that I’ve probably ever seen.
Shelter dispenses with stereotypes, assumptions, and cheap drama. No one is gay-bashed, no one loses their best friend over their being gay, no one decides he can’t handle it and decides not to be gay anymore. Shelter ends on an upbeat and hopeful note without being false; it makes a political statement without being preachy, and the actors all reach just the right notes in their indecision, heartbreak and lovelorn foolishness to be very real. There is no nudity, or explicit sex (in fact, the one sex scene in the film is very underplayed, but still manages to be extremely erotic), no false pathos.
Shelter perfectly captures that almost unbearable intensity, excitement, renewal, and yes, fear, that overcome you when you’re first falling in love and you can’t get them out of your mind, and every second away from them is an eternity. It’s a feeling that always eventually fades, but to see a film get it so right, and to be able to so vividly capture that feeling is the sign of a remarkable director, and actors.
It’s too bad that a movie this nuanced, wise and classy, with such sensitive performances, got marginalized as just another “gay film,” because it deserves better than that.