Max DeCurtins rides a wave of nostalgia for Southern California in his review of Shelter, a gay surf drama in which sexual desire never truly crests before it breaks ashore.
Perhaps no term better evokes the stereotypical Californian easygoing approach to life than the word “dude”—and the pastiche of possible meanings that “dude” can assume, from assent (“Dude!”) to indignation (“Dude.”) to amazement (“Duuuude . . .”). Anything and anyone can be “dude”, and should you need evidence, just have a look at one of those unquestionable sources of truth, the Internet Meme:
Etymologically speaking, “dude” descends from “duds,” the fancy clothing that we might describe on someone—historically, someone we perceive to be putting on airs or performing a role. In fact, this describes Shelter (dir. Jonah Markowitz) rather well, as this is a movie mostly about the performance of masculinity; in this context, the strictures of said masculinity are the duds. But more about that in a moment.
This is a movie that is all about being a feel-good, cheesy thing you watch on the couch, swathed in a blanket, with mac and cheese and goblet of cheap wine at the ready. At least, this is what I imagine people in need of comforting hibernation with time to sit on the couch and a waistline that doesn’t flinch at mac and cheese and cheap wine would do. Needless to say, reader, I have neither the time for couch-sitting nor the impermeable waistline.
When I watch Shelter I feel as if I’m looking through a window and seeing my past: memories of Santa Barbara blurred together in a haze that’s only grown hazier over the last dozen years, blended with time spent in and around Los Angeles both long before college and long after it as well.
Shelter fundamentally registers with me as one giant set-piece of Southern California, almost Agee-esque and liberally sprinkled with markers of the early aughts, but instead of “parents on porches” and a “streetcar raising its iron moan” it’s flip phones and t-shirts from Volcom, beach barbecues, and Rainbow flip-flops. Shelter feels like someone really liked filming surfers and wanted to see if he could make a movie out of it—yes, it was probably a male, and it was probably Markowitz.
An important part of this set-piece, the visual palette of Shelter seems to me like California distilled: azure coastlines; cerulean skies warming to buttery yellows at sunset; rolling hills of burnished gold brush and rocky cliffs giving way to sandy beaches; lots of brown dotted with green; stuccoed houses and buildings—strip malls and boxy stores—for miles and miles, painted in fading colors and cracking here and there from years of exposure to the sun and heat. I watch Shelter and I can almost visualize the drive down 101 from the Bay Area to Santa Barbara: the vast empty expanse south of San Jose; King City with the shitty market where the Greyhound used to make a pit stop; Paso Robles and its miles of vineyards; coming into SLO (San Luis Obispo) after weaving through the mountains just north of it; the dry, baked flatness of Santa Maria; passing by Buellton and never stopping at Andersen’s for pea soup; resisting the temptation to detour to the weirdness that is Solvang; the Pacific finally coming into view again, and the miles of coastal highway dotted with state beaches before, at last, Goleta and UCSB appear to the right of the southbound lanes, Storke Tower and FT rising out of a bubble of land splayed against the sea behind it. The cinematography celebrates its location with unusual poise for such a low-budget film, and alas, it’s maybe the best thing about Shelter. But enough nostalgia; let’s talk about the movie.
I’m not sure this re-view needs a play-by-play, given the fairly simple narrative at work in the film, but in brief, Shelter plays out as follows:
Zach (Trevor Wright) lives in San Pedro, an area of greater Los Angeles south of downtown characterized by its proximity to the massive shipping activity at the nearby Port of Los Angeles. Zach’s bibulous older sister Jeanne (Tina Holmes) has a young son named Cody, works low-wage jobs, and dates Alan, a toxic goon of a human. In the hands of a skilled writer, Jeanne might have had a worthwhile part to play in the movie, perhaps even a parallel and equally important character arc as Zach; alas, she spends most of her time being homophobic and selfish instead. If there’s something to dislike in Shelter’s portrayal of socioeconomic stereotypes, Jeanne’s depiction as a single mother with few redeeming qualities must rank at the top of the list. Meanwhile, Jeanne and Zach’s inert (and possibly opioid-abusing) father mostly stays just out of view of the narrative, having sustained a back injury sometime in the past.
Like Jeanne, Zach works a number of jobs, including cook and cashier. In his free time, he surfs and makes art, his style being heavily influenced by graffiti and street art. At one point he nursed aspirations of attending art school (or, as it’s known to some of us, Art Skool), and indeed had an offer of admission with a full scholarship to Cal Arts, but—caught between a vegetative father, a recently deceased mother, and an older sister uninterested in parenting—quashed his own desires in order to do right by his nephew Cody, for whom Zach spends significant time acting as a surrogate father. He feels stuck in San Pedro, but also an undeniable, abiding love for the city; indeed, the shipping cranes of the port figure prominently in Zach’s art.
Zach’s childhood friend Gabe (Ross Thomas) shows up from time to time, in all his dudebro glory. Gabe is that one person from undergrad we all know, the one who spent college mostly goofing off but ends up getting a salaried job doing nothing important shortly thereafter, maybe earning an MBA or some other cash-cow master’s degree to qualify for an automatic promotion and a pay bump. Gabe doesn’t exist to provide wit or even much heart, but he at least does the things that a good friend would do: he professes his concern over Zach’s on-again, off-again relationship with Tori (Katie Walder), and the fact that Zach doesn’t get out much. Not long after we meet Gabe, his older brother Shaun (Brad Rowe) arrives on the scene, a thoroughly mediocre writer fleeing a recent breakup. Zach and Shaun spend time surfing together, hanging out, and generally setting Jeanne’s homophobic paranoia aflutter.
In Shelter, surfing takes the place of dating—Zach and Shaun go on dates without ever going on dates. After the second such date, Zach ends up at Shaun’s, drinking beer, and after a brief friendly scuffle Shaun goes in for a bit of smooching, which Zach reciprocates. Following a half-hearted struggle with himself over the next day or so, Zach decides that in fact, yes, he would really like to bang Shaun, and so over to Shaun’s he goes; they start going at it the moment Shaun answers the doorbell. It’s sort of anodyne sex in the way that Shelter itself is sort of an anodyne movie, a 70–30 kind of thing. Things escalate quickly from there; Zach and Shaun begin to pursue a relationship.
Zach, of course, isn’t quite ready for it, and what I suppose is meant to be his inner turmoil manifests itself as hostility towards Tori and a fight with Jeanne. The latter’s suggestion that Zach is nothing more than Shaun’s rebound fuck toy concentrates his self-conflict and sets it off, like a detonator in a box of fireworks. Zach, stewing hot mess of dude-ness that he is, tells Shaun to get lost.
In the middle of this typical Act II kind of pain, Jeanne decides to pursue Alan to a job he won in Portland, giving her an excuse to rid herself of responsibility for Cody—which is arguably what she’s wanted all along—and leaving Zach as Cody’s sole guardian. This news, and the news that he’s been readmitted to Cal Arts with a full scholarship after someone apparently submitted an application in his name, proves too much for Zach to handle on his own. He returns to Shaun to plead forgiveness and ask for Shaun’s help in making his second chance work, at which point he learns that Shaun applied on his behalf, something that definitely sounds shady AF ten years later, like the light afternoon tea version of Wells Fargo’s legions of fraudulent bank accounts. (Ah, 2008, in the halcyon days before monthly massive data breaches, rampant identity theft, and generally not knowing who the fuck to trust.)
Shaun—surprise!—agrees to take Zach back. They show up hand in hand as Jeanne and Alan prepare to leave San Pedro, and Cody, behind. This holding of hands, by the way, constitutes the entire extent of Zach’s coming-out. Alan and Zach have a quick altercation over Alan’s douchebag treatment of Cody, a final reminder to the viewer that Zach feels all the fatherly feels about Cody—not that we haven’t heard him say as much, you know, many times over the course of the movie. Zach argues that it’s best that he and Shaun raise Cody, and Jeanne acquiesces. These two and a half men, as it were, live happily ever after. It’s a somewhat weak ending, possessing none of the emotional punch that you might expect from a story about someone who’s finally free to live the life he wants after years of being miserable, but at least it’s not prolonged.
I don’t think it particularly needs to be said that Shelter is not a first-class film. At times I don’t know if the dialogue sounds to me like a caricature of how others think Californians talk, or if it actually sounds completely natural to me because I spent a great deal of time, up until about my mid-twenties, in Southern California and people really do talk that way. Even if it’s verisimilar, the writing ultimately comes off as pretty stilted, and the performances mostly follow suit. Tina Holmes, in the role of Jeanne, may well bring the most acting experience of any of the cast—and her filmography’s pretty thin indeed. Her academic résumé, which includes Yale, Brown, and the Sorbonne, seems far more impressive. Holmes is followed in a distant second by Trevor Wright, who later went on to represent my other alma mater in the role of “B.U. Guy in Bra” in 2010’s The Social Network. So. Go Terriers?
Without much in the way of acting or writing, the viewer must search elsewhere in the film for something worthwhile, something beyond mac and cheese and cheap wine. Apart from the decent cinematography, the real value of Shelter, then and now, must surely lie in its relatively modest interrogation of a masculinity that would otherwise designate being a surfer and being gay as mutually exclusive states. Relatively modest, obviously, because we are after all talking about two cis white dudes speaking nothing but dudebro patois in a narrative that doesn’t probe in any particular depth. Moonlight this is not. We’re not examining how culture perpetuates and transmits behavioral codes; the exercise of power over others as a facet of the performance of masculinity remains unexplored. We’re not asking any questions when Zach expresses regret about the whole homo thing because it means that he won’t get to play guardian and breadwinner for Tori. Still, Shelter provides an interesting cocktail of details about its main character and how he gropes his way toward a fuller identity. Maybe he doesn’t investigate all of the problematic aspects of his masculinity, but at least he grapples with some of them.
Zach clearly comes across as a sensitive character who struggles to express himself emotionally. He’s a surfer but also an artist; his biggest fear seems not to be that his pursuits aren’t “masculine” enough but rather that he is, or forever will be, an outsider—as a gay guy in a world of otherwise straight surfers; as a poor kid in college, an art school that Jeanne derides as “full of rich kid painters who will all end up working in art stores anyway”; as literally the poorer half of his friendship with Gabe and his budding relationship with Shaun, whose parents live in a wealthy suburb; as someone who wants more out of his life but doesn’t want to admit to wanting it, or to feeling dominated by circumstance. Society, and of course masculinity as typically conceived, punishes outsider status, sometimes severely enough to threaten one’s life. Zach performs his masculinity because he doesn’t want to be marked as an outsider, a target in a world that he feels already does enough to give him the short end of the stick.
For me, the most interesting bits of Shelter ten years later highlight how Zach navigates his socioeconomic status (and the tensions it brings to his daily life) and how his personal sense of responsibility leads him to realize that, if he can accept a little help—a scholarship from Cal Arts and co-parenting support from Shaun—he might just possibly be able to shape a future that actually feels exciting and rewarding. The message, crudely delivered though it may be, seems clear: a better masculinity includes vulnerability, asking for help, not repressing your feelings, taking responsibility, and if at all possible, doing all the above without being a colossal jerkface in the process.
Beyond the acting and the writing, a number of other issues plague Shelter. Most obviously, it’s full of casual homophobia that it doesn’t really ever disavow (for example, the numerous appearances of the word “fag,” and not from a Brit asking for a cigarette). Jeanne’s character clearly telegraphs as intentionally homophobic, but most everyone else in the movie doesn’t quite have the same excuse. More insidiously, it flirts with the problematic idea that Zach might not really be gay, except for this one special case named Shaun—not male homosexuality but male heteroflexibility. Something Big Brother-ish that way lies: the reality-show bromance involving a straight man who for some mystical reason finds himself aroused by, captivated by, or otherwise emotionally attached to another male housemate has most definitely been A Thing. It’s not an especially strong suggestion, but watching Shelter ten years later, I realize that it’s perfectly possible to read Zach—and his dynamic with Shaun—this way, and it bothers me. The sex, what 30 seconds of it we get, tries to sizzle but mostly ends up sputtering, reminding me that when it comes to the representation and depiction of gay sexual desire and activity in pretty much anything that might fall under the “gay-themed” rubric, we mostly still haven’t matched the raw steaminess of Queer as Folk more than ten years after the end of that series. Even the most recent entry in the LGBTQ category, Luca Guadagnino’s adaptation of André Aciman’s novel Call Me By Your Name, an arguably far better movie than Shelter will ever be, shies away from bringing hot gay sex to an ostensibly “gay-themed” film—and joins a veritable pantheon of other such movies. Finally, to add to the foregoing list of issues, there’s sort of the fact that nobody in Shelter affirmatively owns up to being gay, which would be fine—to say nothing of welcome—in a movie where a character’s “gayness” amounts to one normal, balanced part of their identity, a movie in which characters can be gay and we don’t have to make a fuss. Shelter, alas, doesn’t answer to this description.
Refreshingly, though, Shelter is not a coming-out film. Enough mediocre coming-out movies crowd the gay-themed space already.
Shelter doesn’t really give much consideration to coming out as a declarative activity and the forces that might inspire one to do so. There’s no seduction, no crush, no agency—the beer-laced kiss that Shaun plants on Zach before curling up and going to sleep is more an adult version of “this one time at Shaun’s house” that seems to flip a light switch (or rather, pop the tab) somewhere inside the shaken beer can that is Zach’s inner emotional life. The surprise arrival of Gabe one morning after Zach has spent the night with Shaun, and their instant panic, feels familiar in a garden-variety, rom-com, bride-caught-kissing-the-groom’s-brother kind of way. It doesn’t really feel to me like an OMG ZACH’S GAY kind of panic. Zach drops casual suggestions that he may have long nurtured an attraction to Shaun, but this is as subtle—and as close to a coming-out narrative—as Shelter gets. Zach doesn’t “come out” of the closet so much as work up the courage to do things that make him happy rather than unhappy, among them sex with Shaun, accepting his emotional and material support, and choosing to be in a relationship with him rather than with Tori. In the process Zach sheds some of the shackles of his WTF-are-all-these-emotion-things dudebro masculinity, the figurative duds whence came all things “dude” in this movie.
Shelter may actually be that rare creature: a low-budget gay-themed film that doesn’t completely suck. With mostly middling acting, often-stilted dialogue, and a sometimes-heavy-handed soundtrack but some decently thoughtful cinematography and editing, the movie feels as though it’s constantly dancing its way around an uncomfortable hindsight, which is that with a few changes and a better cast, Shelter might have been a mildly successful mainstream movie ten years ago. After ten years, the strength of its association with my time spent in Southern California hasn’t waned, even if my memory of the details of that time has. It makes me miss intensely the vastness of the Pacific Ocean and its horizon, a space far less crowded than the one I inhabit now. Despite its problems, it’s not a movie I mind watching once in a long while, if only for the reminder that we should probably all be spending less time at work and more time on the beach. Or, you know, on the couch, with mac and cheese and cheap wine.
I don’t know why, but the diner owner’s pronunciation of “Louvre” as “loo-ver” instantly reminds me of my grandparents. Something about a need to convert a word-final syllabic voiced uvular fricative into a more familiar CVC closed syllable. Because the French, it is hard. #nothard #linguisticsmajor
Flip phones are so uncool now that carriers have re-branded them as “feature phones.” Dude, what?
Wine coolers? What kind of sorry-ass kids get trashed at 13 on wine coolers?
Shaun, honey. Don’t worry; this is pretty much all of us.