On my way home from screening “Shelter”, I sat on the New York City subway D train headed uptown, while sipping my extra hot caramel macchiato. As the train started roaring along the track, a homeless man began walking back and forth in the train car, intermittently begging for change and spewing gibberish. The homeless are a constant in this city; most of the time they are invisible, and other times, they feel like a nuisance; a thorn in the sides of the more advantageous residents.
As I’ve passed homeless people on the street, or seen them on train platforms, I’ve often wondered how they’ve gotten there. It’s unthinkable to me to have nowhere to go, and no one to turn to. Many homeless people are mentally ill; others have simply been dealt a horrible hand in life. A New Yorker himself, “Shelter” director Paul Bettany walked passed two particular homeless people – a black man and a white woman who lived just outside of his building – on a near daily basis. He never knew their story, and after Hurricane Sandy ravished the city, he never saw them again.
Idealistic perhaps, or maybe feeling the guilt that many of us feel as we turn away from the homeless in discomfort, Bettany, primarily an actor, created a story for this couple in “Shelter,” his directorial debut.
Undocumented immigrant, Tahir, played by Anthony Mackie, and drug-addicted Hannah (Jennifer Connolly) are very different people, both thrown on the streets due to life’s circumstances. Their initial meeting is painful and tumultuous. And yet, they push through, building a tentative friendship which blossoms into something much more powerful. As expected, Mackie and Connolly give powerful performances. (Though Mackie’s Nigerian accent leaves a little to be desired.) However, the story itself doesn’t allow the audience to really feel the pain and shame of homelessness in any real way.
Bettany’s story is exactly what you’d expect. Despite having all of the right tools and plot points, the characters in “Shelter” exist only as deeply wounded beings, while the audience looks down upon them from cushy, privileged perspectives. The film is split into two chapters, a summer and a winter portion. The first half, set in summer, shows an emaciated looking Connolly as the heroine-addicted Hannah. The audience watches as she numbingly presses forward through the overwhelming intensity of a New York City summer. Tahir is a constant presence here; Hannah’s savior of sorts. His story, though equally wretched, is held back from the audience just a tad too long so that when it is revealed, it seems barely believable. There is no stomach churning reaction to Tahir’s revelation, instead it’s just another tidbit in the narrative.
As a woman, I often think of the horrors that must occur on the street for homeless women. Protecting what little material possessions one may have is one thing, but protecting yourself against rape and other bodily assaults is an entirely different battle. Hannah goes through all of this. From her perspective, her body is the only thing of value that she has to offer society. A woman’s perspective of homelessness is very important to highlight. However, with Tahir in a position to “save” her, this story arc is also highly idealistic.
The winter portion of the film is much more compelling. Officially a couple, Tahir and Hannah desperately try to carve out some normalcy for themselves. And yet, their plans are constantly thwarted by circumstances beyond their control. It was more frustrating than heartbreaking to watch, and the end of the film left me with an overwhelming feeling of dissatisfaction. Perhaps I am coming from my own space of privilege as someone who returns home to a warm place every night; however, the film’s climax simply felt overdone and confusing.
There are over 50,000 homeless people living in New York City, and millions more living across this country. They deserve to have their stories told. The horrors that they encounter are certainly unimaginable to those who have never had to face such horrendous conditions. However, despite Paul Bettany’s best intentions, “Shelter” is not their story. He desperately wanted to give that homeless couple living outside of his apartment a voice; but instead, he simply imagines the life he hoped they lived.
“Shelter” is now in limited theatrical release.
Aramide A Tinubu has her Master’s in Film Studies from Columbia University. She wrote her thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger, and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can read her blog at: www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami