Shelter is a well-intentioned film that edges into misery porn. Hannah (Jennifer Connelly) and Tahir (Anthony Mackie), homeless in New York, begin a relationship, and while it is sweet to see them stick up for each other, their backstories are never convincing — there seem to be steps missing on their road to where we meet them.
Shelter is strongest when it allows its two protagonists dignity — and at its worst when it cruelly strips this dignity away. In an early scene, Hannah and Tahir kiss in close-up in the rain — a classic Hollywood moment afforded to those who wouldn’t usually be allowed to have one.
As we’d expect in a tale of homeless life, happy moments are few and far between. After countless trials, Hannah, on a harsh winter night, is understandably desperate for a place to stay, and a kindly security guard offers her a place in the boiler room of his building. We breathe a sigh of relief, but suddenly he demands something in return, and the next shot feels gratuitous: Hannah’s pretty face is covered in cum. Objectifying Hannah is unnecessary — we can feel for her struggles without seeing her reduced.
More curious still, Shelter is the directorial debut of Paul Bettany, Connelly’s husband. What is the point of presenting his wife in this way, when she’s already conveyed suitable humiliation and despair through the strength of her own performance? The film ends with a dedication: “For the couple who lived outside my building” — there are far too many stories of homelessness in this city, and Shelter is too determined to fit all the agony of these experiences into one film.
Written and directed by Paul Bettany
Screen Media Films
Opens November 13, AMC Empire 25