Thursday, November 8, 2007

Chicago's gay and lesbian film festival opens with a sweet surfer film.

Shelter, the opening night film for the 26th annual Reeling Film Festival, seems at first like a notable gay movie for what it doesn't have. Instead of starring impossibly ripped models, it features two cute-but-not-hardbodied leads. Rather than the typical techno/dance soundtrack, quiet acoustic singer-songwriters strum in the background. And instead of just focusing on sex, the lead character's coming out is just one factor in his overall coming of age.

Set in Southern California, the film follows Zach (Trevor Wright), a talented artist who has given up a full college scholarship to help raise his sister's son, Cody, after their mother's death. He works in a diner, nags his ailing father to take his meds and, most importantly, surfs. His meditative retreats to the ocean not only help him escape his responsibilities, it's also how he runs into his best friend's older brother, Shaun (Brad Rowe). Zach starts hanging out with the openly gay writer and before he knows what he's doing, one too many beers leads to one too many kisses.

As Zach struggles with the choices he's already made and the ones that lay out in front of him, his flaky, selfish sister makes it clear that his role as a brother and an uncle should be his only priorities. Shaun tries to convince Zach to pursue his dreams, but Zach can't quite break the family bonds.

The film somehow manages to fit in themes of love, art, family, class and even gay parenting all without hitting the audience over the head with them. The surfing scenes, particularly when set against the California sunset, are gorgeous. The acting, especially Wright's natural, effortless performance, is mostly solid. And the script takes its time building relationships, allowing for some truly touching and funny moments (Shaun: "You ever been to Europe?" Zach: "I've been to Florida once").

On the other hand, some of the dialogue, especially in the heavier scenes, becomes cheesy and forced. Both Shaun and Cody seem a little too good to be true - Shaun because he's handsome, rich, emotionally available and would just love to move in with a guy after only a few months of surfing and sex; Cody because he's a 5-year-old who never cries, screams or pouts. But most problematically, the two charming leads aren't very convincing in the pivotal love scene, meekly pecking at each other's lips when they should be trying to suck each other's faces off.

Overall, Shelter is a charming and sweet film that dwells in a very clich├ęd genre while making it seem fresh and new. Zach and Shaun aren't flamboyant drama queens and they're not preening macho peacocks - they're two surfer dudes who just happen to be into other surfer dudes. And coming out isn't Zach's defining decision, it's one in a kaleidoscope of interconnected choices that force him to stand up for what, and who, he wants. - Don Baiocchi