For all the saliva-producing hunks, it’d be easier than Paris Hilton to call surfer-dude story “Shelter” just another gay movie. But think of the here! movie, which premieres on April 18, as the Lifetime equal of “Brokeback Mountain,” and, aside from melodramatic moments and some forced drama, that’s not meant to be nearly as harsh as it probably sounds.
Following his high school graduation, Zach (Trevor Wright) flips burgers, becomes a father-ish figure to his nephew and channels his inner Picasso. The kid’s got ambition – but he spends most of his time skateboarding through his lower-class California town and caring for his unfit, man-magnet sister’s son. Thrust into adulthood, his escape is riding the waves – and, since we’re left to assume sexual positions, Shaun (Brad Rowe), the older brother of his best friend who temporarily leaves Los Angeles to put a bad breakup behind him.
Their initial convo is cautious, shooting the shit about surfing but never getting too deep into Shaun’s split. Why? Well, Shaun is gay, and it’s no secret around town, which could put the closeted Zach into the awkward position of answering a longtime-lingering question: Am I The Gay? Let’s put it this way: If he had a Magic 8-Ball, the fortune-telling toy would say, “Signs point to yes.” He’d rather inhale popcorn than his girlfriend’s tongue. His eyes become magnets when he spots a bare-chested wetsuit-clad surfer dude. And he clams up when his sister (“Six Feet Under” alum Tina Holmes) blatantly asks: “You’re not a fag, right?”
Damn – no wonder he’s not comfy with being queer. And she just complicates matters further, spending more time with the bottle and her “boyfriends” than her son, who becomes Zach’s responsibility. As “Shelter” – or what will probably be called, in the vein of “Brokeback Mountain,” the Gay Surfer Movie – unfolds, the quintessential kiss comes during a beer-guzzling patio chat, when the guys engage in a predictably-playful wrestling-match-turned-lip-lock. The morning after, when Zach wakes up next to Shaun, he jets with his mind working overtime: Did I just really wake up next to a dude? Was it Bud’s fault? Where the hell was the Orville Redenbacher?
Problem is: No popcorn – extra-buttery or not – can keep him too far from Shaun. As their relationship pops – and, of course, trips on a few kernels – Shaun becomes his sea. Where Zach used to find comfort in waves, he now also seeks solace in the older Shaun’s touch, encouragement to pursue art or his genuine interest in his brother – and ultimately admits to his girlfriend, his sister and most importantly himself what that Magic 8-Ball would’ve told him.
Wright, as Zach, plays the unsure youngster with raw authenticity, remarkable subtleties and easily-associable emotions that bodes well for his character arc, as he changes from confused, weirded-out gay to confident, comfy queer. As Shaun, Rowe oozes self-assurance, patience and hotness, remarkably nailing the turn as cheerleader. Channeling Ashley Judd (both in looks, and in some of the screwed-up anti-glam roles she chooses), Holmes gives the supporting sis deep dimension, carving out Jeanne’s insecurities – and giving her minimal, not-quite-180-degree turn during the fanciful ending honest realism.
Directed and written by Jonah Markowitz, “Shelter” boasts a slick, engaging indie score and some appealing seashore cinematography – but the film sometimes shifts into Lifetime gear with forced fights, overuses the “dude”-talk and could’ve benefited from a less-generic title. But, when considering Markowitz’s decision to pen a gay movie without AIDS, bathroom humor or too many coming-of-age cliches, these are minor gripes. As we see it, yes, “Shelter” is good – and we don’t need a Magic 8-Ball to prove it. B+
6:30 p.m. doors, 7:30 p.m. show, April 29
Compuware Headquarters Auditorium
1 Campus Martius, Detroit