By Cyd Zeigler jr.

(3 stars out of 4)
here! Films
Running Time: 88 minutes
Release Date: March 28 in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Boston and Palm Springs
There are enough shallow, stereotypical, light-on-character gay movies out there to line Southern California beaches from Malibu to San Diego. Since its inception, here! TV has brought us a bunch of them, including their most popular softcore porn, Dante’s Cove. In Shelter, which has been taking film festivals by storm over the last few months, here! Films establishes itself as a legitimate gay film studio willing to produce low-concept, virtually sex-free stories that bring rich and rewarding characters to life.

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First, let me get out my biggest criticism of the film. To a big extent the story is the same-old-same-old coming out escapade many have seen a hundred times. Kid wrestles with sexuality, kid kisses guy, kid pushes guy away, kid does soul searching, kid (as music swells) succumbs and falls in love with guy. If you’ve seen Latter Days, you can (sans attempted suicide) see what’s coming around most of the story’s corners.
But there’s a tenderness, a vulnerability, in our two heroes that is wonderfully refreshing and makes this film both special and memorable. That we’ve seen and read hundreds of coming out stories in our time doesn’t reduce the impact of these characters with unique family dynamics featuring a young man with the character and integrity that anyone would feel lucky to fall for.
At the center of the story is that young man, Zach (Trevor Wright), who’s pushed away art school so he can flip burgers and take care of his nephew, the five-year-old victim of a drug-using, ambitionless sister with an asshole for a boyfriend. Zach’s refuge is his art and, to a lesser extent, hitting the waves of the beautiful Southern California coast with his board. It’s heading out with his board one day that we first meet Shaun (Brad Rowe), the older brother of one of Zach’s good friends.
The first day Zach and Shaun spend together rings wonderfully true. Neither of them knows the other has an inkling of interest, but they both reveal their interest in the other in preciously innocent, subconscious ways. When Zach’s “ex”-girlfriend shows up in the middle of their excursion to the beach, his subtle look over his shoulder to make sure the new object of his affection isn’t looking as he plants a kiss on her is very real. The two actors’ chemistry carries the heart of the movie beautifully; and as their characters’ relationship grows, it develops into a wonderfully scary honesty that reminded this reviewer of the first few days and weeks of his own loving relationship.
Writer/director Jonah Markowitz easily could have used the surfing milieu as a crutch. It’s not difficult to market a movie featuring hot, buff, young surfers running around half-naked most of the movie. But Markowitz didn’t do that. Instead, he focused on developing rich characters and relationships that defy not only stereotypes of gay men but also the gay-male characters far too many writers and filmmakers make us swallow. Those who cringe at gay stereotypes will find these two men a refreshing change.
By the third act, Zach’s twentysomething melodrama does get the best of his character; all the brooding and anguish do become a bit much. Indecision and personal struggle are certainly both part of life, and they are the components of great stories; but once that decision is made and the struggle is over, audiences don’t want to see the same issues rear their ugly heads because some straight (and incredibly gay-friendly) surfer dude comes home from college for a weekend. One of the treasures of the story is Zach’s sacrifice to keep his father, sister and nephew a cohesive family, and his sacrifice is made even more powerful by his sister Jeanne’s (Tina Holmes) homophobia. It would have been nice to see more made of Zach and Shaun’s struggle together with Jeanne; instead, as the film approaches its climax, we’re left with increasing melodrama between the two lovebirds.
Some of the devices are rather clunky or cliché. When Shaun shakes off a dusty walkie-talkie and Zach, who admittedly hasn’t used his for longer than those batteries should last, answers on the other end, eyes do roll. The tool to get Shaun and Zach lying next to each other on a bed is so cliché (involving alcohol and a bit of wrestling), it’s hard not to chuckle when it unfolds. Still, the characters remain true throughout and, even with the been-there-done-that path they are sometimes lead down.
Shelter isn’t much of a surf movie, which is neither praise nor criticism. The footage in the water leaves something to be desired, in all likelihood the result of a smaller budget; most of the surfing is observed from 20, 30, 40 yards away. The surfing also doesn’t play much of a role in the movie; It’s more of a set piece than a character or theme. Little is revealed about the sport, art or culture of surfing; the homophobia that resides at the heart of the Southern California surf culture isn’t portrayed at all. To say the film is a sports movie is more than a stretch; still, the sport of surfing is present throughout.
Music supervisor Brian Goldman gets big kudos for a wonderful soundtrack that goes beyond the score; and singer/songwriter Shane Mack gets applause for a couple original songs, one of which, More Than This, has been on repeat in this reviewer’s ipod for several days.
While the film itself isn’t groundbreaking, it does give hope that, if here! Can break out of the mold of gay entertainment being little more than softcore porn, there is great hope that we’ll see more honest gay love stories being told with little camp, even if it is on a low budget.

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