Main Cast: Jennifer Connelly, Anthony Mackie
Director: Paul Bettany
What goes through your mind when you pass a homeless person on the street? If you’re like me, it’s a complicated mix of sadness, pity, frustration and fear – there but for the grace of God go all of us. We know by now that there is no universal truth behind homelessness – there are as many stories as there are people living on the streets. Shelter tells two of those stories.
Jennifer Connelly and Anthony Mackie star in this story of two very, very different people on the streets for very, very different reasons. Mackie is Tahir, an illegal immigrant from Nigeria. Connelly’s Hannah is a heroin addict. The two meet after Tahir’s belongings are stolen and he spots his jacket on Hannah. He is well spoken and polite, she is sullen and self-destructive. The movie is their story – how they ended up on the streets, how they survive there, what they are willing to do to make it through just another humiliating, soul crushing day.
The strength of the film is in the performances from Connelly and Mackie. Connelly is obviously a very talented actress with a lot of great performances under her belt. I was not surprised that she could make the initially unsympathetic and frankly appalling Hannah into someone we could begin to understand. She plays the homeless person that a lot of people think is universal – the drug addict who has burned all her bridges. The goal is not to wash Hannah clean of responsibility for her actions and her situation, but make her human enough to allow her the right to redemption. Connelly succeeds on every level.
The most recent thing I saw Anthony Mackie in was the comedy The Night Before. And that sucked, which has the unfortunate consequence of making me forget he has been in many, many other great films (including highly acclaimed roles in The Hurt Locker and Brother to Brother). In Shelter, he gives Tahir a serenity that makes for a terrific contrast to Hannah’s manic self-destruction. A street musician and devout Muslim, Tahir is as stubborn as Hannah, with just as many demons. He understands her, even if he does not deal with his life in the same way.
As the two develop a relationship of sorts, we learn about their lives and struggles, misfortunes and ghosts. Director Paul Bettany does a nice job with his actors – giving them enough freedom to explore their characters without abandoning any sense of narrative direction. There are a few improbable situations, but they are forgivable in the greater scheme of the storytelling.
Shelter is not what I would call uplifting. Not at all, actually. It’s sad and hard to watch in places. But it’s also a nicely balanced combination of individual stories and social commentary about the vast and endlessly complicated world of homelessness in the United States. 4 stars out of 5 and a solid recommendation.