A Decade of "Shelter"

Story Synopsis: Zach, a recent high school graduate, is a talented artist, but because of family obligations, spends his days working a dead-end diner job. He lives in a small, cramped house, in a poor area of town, with his sister, Jeanne—a single, irresponsible mother who works at a small grocery store and dates problematic men. She plays on Zach’s family commitment (i.e., manipulates), and depends on him to care from her five-year-old son, Cody and their disabled father while she works, dates and parties.

Aside from personal drawings in a sketchbook no one ever sees, and tagging local buildings, Zach has given up on his dream of going to art school. He stays because he knows he’s the only stable element in Cody’s life.

Tori is Zach’s on-again, off-again girlfriend; they are currently taking a break. In his free time, Zack skateboards, and surfs with his best friend, Gabe, who lives in an affluent beach neighborhood. When Gabe leaves for college, Zack goes to get his surfboard, and runs into Shaun, Gabe’s older brother, a successful writer who says he’s returned home from Los Angeles to work on his next novel. Shaun has recently ended a long-term relationship, and is surprised to learn that Zack knows he’s gay. They begin to hang out together, surfing and talking. 

One night, after an evening of drinking, Shaun kisses Zack, who doesn’t resist or recoil, though after they sleep it off, he bolts and tries to avoid Shaun. Having never addressed his attractions for other men, Zack struggles to come to terms with his feelings for Shaun, which must be reconciled with his family obligations, his history with Tori, the expectations of his homophobic sister, and his own career aspirations.

Shelter was released this week in March of 2008, after nearly a year making the round at film festivals around the world, where it won numerous awards. It wasn’t a big-budget movie, and didn’t have the studio backing or well-known actors that earlier films had received. (e.g., Birdcage, Brokeback Mountain, In and Out) It’s not considered a seminal film in LGBTQ cinema, but ten years later, it remains one of my all-time favorite movies, and one I think deserves recognition...for several reasons. 

When I first began watching “gay” movies (No, not that kind!), the predominant theme was AIDS. It makes sense, because we were at the height of the pandemic, and the stories needed to be told. Most were sad, and the ending were rarely “happily ever after.” (e.g., Longtime Companion, Philadelphia, It’s My Party, The Living End)
It was a cathartic experience. 
We went expecting to express our anger and grief.

Clarification: Deciding on an accurate descriptor is difficult. I’m reluctantly using the generic term "gay movie," though it’s not one I embrace comfortably.

What is a “gay movie?”
Is it one made by a gay person?
Is it having a gay character? Multiple gay characters?
A gay storyline?
Including a same-sex kissing?
Is a “gay movie” only for gay people?

It’s such a limiting and restrictive term, particularly in the audience it might attract. (e.g., I’m gay, and my books include gay characters…but I don’t think they’re “gay books.”)

Such is my dilemma.

I've seen numerous "gay movies," and they haven't always been emotionally satisfying, for a variety of (admittedly personal) reasons: 

  • The gay characters are often marginalized, stereotypes (Birdcage,  Partners), sad and pitiful, mentally unstable, psychopathic (The Talented Mr. Ripley) a punchline (Beverly Hills Cop) or punching bags (Torch Song Trilogy). 
  • When the story involves “coming out” or coming to terms with sexual orientation, too often the trauma and self-loathing ends with suicide, death or murder. (Brokeback Mountain)
  • They captured me with a love story, only to have it snatched away in the end, as if two men can’t possible make it as a couple. (Free Fall, Burning Blue)
  • When being gay is equated with predatory behavior (Cruising) or being a street hustler (My Own Private Idaho, Sugar). 
  • Movies about heterosexual men in a situation where they must pretend to be gay. (The Gay Deceivers, Boat Trip, I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry)In the end, they (hopefully) learns a valuable life-lesson about tolerance, and we're supposed to cheer for them.
  • And all the movies that were just...bad! (Really, REALLY bad!)
    I understand that our stories need to be told, and there’s not always the same kind of financial backing as there would be for a Julia Roberts or Sandra Bullock Rom-Com. Many of these movies are classified as Independent, meaning it was handled by a small studio, with a small budget and limited releases. Others are written, directed and financed by a single person, with a singular, personal passion for the project. Judging these "gay movies" against movies with larger budgets require concessions in elements such as sets, cinematography, locations, etc. I believe in art for art’s sake as much as the next person, but I have problems when the story is so weak, the agenda so clear, the execution so bad, and the acting so bad that it’s unwatchable. (e.g., see my online review of Dream Boy)

So when a movie comes along that avoids these annoying elements, I take notice!


Shelter is proof that low budget doesn’t need to translate to a low value.
It’s a good story, with a solid, talent cast.

Tina Holmes as Zach’s sister is amazing. Jeanne was sad, and heartbreaking and appalling. While I disagreed with her behavior, I totally brought into her character.

Brad Rowe does a great job playing a man who’s broken-hearted, anxious about his future, and yet ready to move on. Shaun gained some success with his first novel, but is not sure what to do next. He’s impressed by Zack’s art, as well as his selfless devotion to his family, though he pushes him to stand up for himself. “You’ll never get what you want unless you take it.”  (It doesn't hurt that he's adorable!) 

Trevor Wright is wonderful as Zach. He’s young, but certainly not carefree. He’s conflicted by his own aspiration and hindered by his family obligations as well as his secret. He escapes with his skateboard, surfing…and art.

I assume because it’s a surfing movie, the writer felt the need to use lots of “dudes” and “bros” in the dialogue, which sometimes felt forced. (Like when a movie is set in the South, and they add quaint phrases like “knee-high to a grasshopper” or “madder than a wet hen.”) Zach and his sometimes-girlfriend use the pet name “monkey,” which I found off-putting, but maybe that’s odder than calling someone “honey,” “sweetie,” or “Boo.” (Love you, Boo!) Otherwise, most of the conversations struck me as realistic. Zach teases his best friend Gabe about going to a “richy-rich private school” and Gabe retorts by calling him “ghetto trash.” It’s a casualness that lets us know the subject—their vastly different socio-economic status—has been discussed, and is not an issue for these friends.

I won’t “analyze” the movie, but as I’ve watched it MANY times, I’ve always been struck with a recurring image that ties the film together for me. It’s Zach, in a car. More than 10 times in the film, we see him either sitting or driving in a car—a metaphor of movement, direction. Each Zach-Car scene seems pivotal, almost revelatory; I see aspects of him being revealed, or part of the story unfolding. (I’m not sure if it was intentional by the director, but I like to think it was.

Time won’t permit going into detail, but a few examples include:

  • Very early in the film, we see him driving with his nephew to see Gabe. He crosses a bridge, where we begin to see the distinct differences in affluence. This is Zach, about to cross into a new adventure, just before he sees Shaun.
  • After Shaun kisses him, we see Zach driving home. He’s upset, confused, even angry. This is Zach, struggling with who he is. 
  • Once he admits his feeling for Shaun, and they have their first intimate encounter, we see him smiling, happy. This is a different Zach, one who might be able to accept who he is, and the affection of someone who "gets him." 
  • When his sister confronts him, and gets into his head, he gives into his conflict and doubt. He and Shaun have an argument in the car. Zach wants to end the relationship. 
    Zach: “I need some time. I just don’t know if this is really what I want.”
    Shaun: “It seems like what you want.”
    Zach: “I just don’t know if this is what I want…for good…This is all totally new to me.
  • Toward the end of the movie, we have a scene with Zach, essentially living in his car rather than face his sister. His world has closed in. He's along.
    Then, while in the car, he gets an important voice mail. His life could change, if he’s willing to take chances.  

Shelter came out a decade ago, and it's still one of my favorites. I even bought the soundtrack, which has some good, original songs.
It’s truly a coming-of-age, coming out story.
It’s also a touching love story. 
The added bonus: there’s a happy ending. 

<cue the frolicking loving couple montage>


Disclaimer: Just because I've mentioned a movie in this post doesn't necessarily imply it's a bad (or good) movie, and it's not intended to suggest the movie can't be enjoyed for the message it conveys. It's not a reflection on the writer, the actors or the story. They are not mentioned as a personal endorsement; some I haven't even seen, or want to see.
Likewise, (in most cases) it should not be assumed that I didn't like the movie.
I refer to them mostly for example, for comparison or as a contrast.