Wednesday, 10 December 2008
Director: Jonah Markowitz.
Principal cast: Trevor Wright, Brad Rowe, Tina Holmes, Katie Walder.
American cinematography has a relatively long tradition of easy-to-digest- and-drop-a-tear-or-two coming of age and coming out films. In a way, it has set a standard for such films for the mainstream queer audiences for as long as such films have been available for the very same target group. Here! TV’s first own feature “Shelter” is in many ways nothing but a continuation of this tradition, only with gay parenting issues thrown in as an extra subplot to try and catch the tides of the time. But while professional critics are busy calling this film flat and uninnovative, the average gay viewer out there is in a hurry to order this film on DVD after having given it numerous Audience Awards at this year’s queer film festivals. And that is utterly unsurprising – a romantic drama with a seemingly happy ending where the two main characters, played by hunky straight actors, use every excuse to show a bit of skin (either surfing or during some more intimate exercises), cannot be any further away from the gloom and doom of “Brokeback Mountain” and Prop 8. And that certainly sells.
The film’s plot evolves around Zach, a serious looking fellow in his early twenties and his rather dysfunctional family – his sister Jeanne, a single mother whose 5-year-old son Cody has found a fatherly figure in Zach as well as their ill and rather absent-minded father who seems to be more of a burden than a support. Feeling responsible for his family’s well-being, Zach has put his own future plans and needs on hold playing a surrogate father to Cody while his sister is busy finding a new man in her life. He spends his free time painting artsy graffitti on the walls of his neighbourhood, dreaming of an artist’s career and, since the film is set in the LA suburb of San Pedro, taming waves with his surfboard. Occasionally, he hangs out with his childhood friend Gaby and even dates Tori, a local girl. His relationship with her can at best be described as half-hearted – it is clear that she expects a lot more from him than he is willing or capable of giving. The pace of life is slow and physically undemanding but still there isn’t much that seems to put a smile on Zach’s face.
One day at the beach, he runs into Gabe’s brother, Shaun whom he hasn’t seen for some time. Shaun, an aspiring writer, has come down to San Pedro from his home somewhere in urban LA after an ended relationship to spend some time at his family’s house by the beach which is obviously only used every now and then as a getaway by different members of his family. The two hook up reminiscing about old times, surfing and burning midnight oil on Shaun’s terrace. Life seems easy and unrestrained. Only Zach’s sister seems to be worried – “doesn’t Zach know that Shaun’s gay?” In fact, he does – he even read Shaun’s first novel when it came out and, apparently, this novel was rather clear on the subject matter. Shaun is surprised but delighted. However, it isn’t long before first clouds appear on their sky – one night after a few beers on his terrace, Shaun kisses Zach. On the following day, Zach is all sullen and cold towards Shaun who, however, doesn’t seem to take his sudden change of mood too seriously. But it’s a different story for Zach – his unexpected feelings for Shaun are a torture – he’s torn between his loveless but comfortable life on one hand and this whole new world of homosexual desire on the other. Torn or not, he still chooses to embrace the latter and they are soon involved in a passionate relationship. A relationship which despite all the happiness that it brings to both protagonists, is kept a secret to the outside world.
Having an affair with Shaun doesn’t prevent Zach from continuing with his role as the de facto head of the family. Jeanne never fails to seize an opportunity to force Zach to babysit Cody while she’s working on her love interest Alan whose current interests in life as well as future plans haven’t got much room for the little boy. Instead, Cody gets to spend a lot of time in Shaun’s house and becomes very infatuated with his new adult friend. It is also Cody who unintentionally brings the secret affair to light. This sudden disclosure not only becomes a true test for Zach and Shaun’s relationship but also forces Zach to take a fight with his inner demons and choose his own path in life.
The inner struggle that Zach experiences seems to have three dimensions. Coming to terms with one’s own sexuality and coming out to the outside world are two that are known all to well to most non-heterosexual people. The third one is about finding a balance between one’s own needs and those of the others. Sacrificing oneself for the sake of one’s family or, for that matter, even one’s country usually only creates self-appointed martyrs who often end up bitter and lonesome, having driven away other people by their self-righteousness and beforehand doomed expectations from these very same people that they are allegedly sacrificing themselves for. Others just let objects of their selfless care tread all over them and take them for granted. And that which is taken for granted seldom yields any respect or is even generally noticed or appreciated. Needless to say, finding this balance is a lot more difficult process in real life than it may sound. For those who don’t automatically fit into the categories of either “Mother Theresa” at one end of the spectrum or “The Absolute Selfish Bastard” at the other, this process is a never-ending story. However, all these three dimensions can also be directly intertwined. Often people who cannot find acceptance in society or themselves due to their sexuality seek to apply their energy and emotions to tasks which make them forget, if only for a time, their own needs and personal life. By filling his days and his head with his family’s needs, Zach mentally postponed having to deal with questions like: why wasn’t he really interested in physical contact with the girl he was dating or any other girls for that matter? Why did he read Shaun’s gay novel in the first place? There is a significant number of people out there who spend their lives taking care of other people’s problems and needs simply because they don’t have a personal life themselves, or are too afraid to even think of having one. Finding self-respect and creating respect for oneself in others are two very essential steps one must take to be able to live a fullfilling life. And somebody who lives a fullfilling life also has a much stronger capacity to reach out to others in need of help. Toward the end of the film we see Zach finally attempting to take these steps.
Still, the whole gay parenting aspect in the film’s plot is more of a way of letting Zach have his cake and eat it than a real take on the issue. In the end, Zach isn’t forced to choose between his love life and taking care of Cody after his mother deserts him to move to Oregon with her boyfriend. Being a responsible young man in need of both a physical and emotional shelter, he and Cody simply move in with Shaun who seems to be more than happy with the arrangement. And surprise, surprise – Shaun’s home in LA is basicly next door to the art school where Zach has just been enrolled. Hmmm, a little too convenient?
This is clearly the film’s biggest and most obvious flaw. To the eye not completely blurred by the tears of happiness felt towards the budding family, Zach actually appears to be more of a gold-digging opportunist than someone passionately in love with Shaun. Also Shaun’s amazing availability and accommodation of Zach’s every tantrum just leaves me wondering if that Shaun character is for real and hasn’t been planted on Earth by a hostile alien race whose objective is to lull us into false security and then eat us? Or will he now turn out to be the real Mother Theresa of the two?
Whatever the answers to these questions, one thing seems certain – these apparent flaws in the film’s script will not deter most viewers from loving this film. And if you wish to have a relaxed and romantic evening at home with your boyfriend (or just wishing you had one) at Christmas and still feel that you’re watching something deep and meaningful without drowning yourself in existential anxieties afterwards, this might just be the film.
Here you can watch the film's trailer