It's excruciating and exhilarating.
In the 1970s there flourished a phenomenon known as the Movie of the Week. These television productions were often issue-oriented dramas about individuals learning to overcome obstacles: disabilities, diseases, drugs, pollution, killer semis, teen waywardness, nuclear annihilation, being "different." Sometimes they won Emmys. Mostly they mediocre, generally described as "well-intentioned" and even, occasionally, "daring" in their subject matter.
Today we don't use the anachronistic term "made-for-TV movie" much. Instead we say a movie is "Sundancey." Well, maybe we don't use that exact word, which isn't a word, but we all know what it means: a well-intentioned drama about individuals learning to overcome obstacles -- usually in a colorful neighborhood or socioeconomic niche.
Like San Pedro. Jonah Markowitz's "Shelter" is a Sundancey made-for-cable coming-out story from the here! network, which bills itself as "Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual & Transgender Television." In 1974, "Shelter" would have been run as a Movie of the Week, but the two San Pedro surfers would not have kissed. Prime-time man-kissing (seriously, romantically) on prime-time "network" TV wouldn't come until 26 years later, on the WB's "Dawson Creek" in 2000.
But back to Pedro (PEE-droe), which "Shelter" renders with an attentive, insider's eye, from the run-down, graffiti-tagged neighborhoods in sight of the Vincent Thomas Bridge to the posh McMansions across the tracks. Zach (Trevor Wright) is the de facto live-in baby-sitter for his trashy sister Jeanne (Tina Holmes) and his beloved 5-year-old nephew Cody (Jackson Wurth). Like the abominable mother played by Oscar-nominated Amy Ryan in "Gone Baby Gone," Jeanne knows exactly how to manipulate others into taking last-minute responsibility for her kid. So Zach doesn't get out much, even to see his longtime girlfriend Torie (Katie Walder), who is frustrated by his lack of physical attention.
Zach is a young man with dreams, but who is weighed down by his responsibilities. His best friend, Gabe (Ross Thomas), parties all the time at the University of Santa Barbara and wants Zach to join him, but Zach wants to go to art school. He's a serious guy, delaying his own future for the sake of Cody.
One sunshiny day, he hooks up with Gabe's older brother Shaun (Brad Rowe), whom he's known since childhood. Shaun is a writer, taking a break from the pressures of L.A. to hang out for a while at the family homestead by the beach. For local color, Shaun and Zach go surfing. Glossy photospread montage sequences ensue, set to poppy tunes ("happy fun"), tender ballads ("falling in love") and melancholy folk-rock ("estranged"), depending on the status of their relationship at that point in the movie. A friendship develops that ripens into romance. Zach learns ... guess what Zach learns?
Suffice it to say that "Shelter" is a coming-out, coming-of-age movie that is mediocre and very well-intentioned. Zach's main problem is not that he's overburdened and conflicted about his responsibilities or that he's gay or that his ambitions are being thwarted, it's that he lacks a personality. We recognize the archetypal Good Boy, the repressed kid who conforms to others' expectations because he feels trapped. To Zach, it may be easier to stay in his rut than to take the risk of climbing out.
That's why he needs Shaun, an older guy who has his own problems, but offers the promise of a world beyond the one that's closing in around Zach. Rowe, who's done a lot of TV (from "NewsRadio" to "CSI") since he was the love object for Sean Hayes ("Will & Grace") in "Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss" (1998), imbues Shaun with a maturity that feels relaxed and spontaneous (probably embellished with improvisation). Everybody else is reading their lines; he seems to be living his, and that spark is just enough to bring "Shelter" intermittently to life.
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