Shelter isn't an easy film to watch. An uncompromising, sometimes bleak, melodrama about the quotidian experience of a pair of homeless New Yorkers who fall in love, actor Paul Bettany's directorial debut isn't a movie you enjoy so much as endure.

Bettany, 44, who has made more than 40 films, including Gangster No. 1, The Reckoning, and Master and Commander, proves to be the perfect actor's director, coaxing winning performances from his leads, Anthony Mackie (The Hurt Locker) and his real-life wife, Jennifer Connelly (A Beautiful Mind).

Mackie stars as Tahir, a Nigerian Muslim immigrant who ekes out something akin to a living as a street drummer. The film begins with his release from a short stint in jail courtesy of a cop who beat him up.

He returns to the alleyway where he sleeps, only to find his possessions have disappeared. His buddy, Jerry (Steve Cirbus), was supposed to guard them. Instead, he helped himself to Tahir's prized winter boots.

He approaches a fellow indigent, a woman named Hannah (Connelly), who is wearing another of his beloved personal items, a jacket.

Tahir, who is possessed of an uneasy mixture of aloof nobility, compassion, and torment, has trouble connecting with her at first. A heroin junkie, her daily roller-coaster ride - finding money for a fix, getting high, going through withdrawal - has driven her close to psychosis. She is barely coherent, yet he offers to help her. Things become uncomfortably intense when she shares her tragic story. By fits and starts, they fall in love.

Mackie and Connelly have a palpable chemistry as they play off each other. In one scene, he distracts curious onlookers with his drumming while she steals food; in another, they try to remake an abandoned building into something akin to a home.

Shelter is a wake-up call of sorts because it forces us to look at the homeless as individuals with life stories, rather than as vague problems or smelly nuisances. I was shocked at my reaction on seeing Mackie's character fish out of the garbage a disgusting half-eaten sandwich to eat.

Bettany doesn't preach. But neither does he delve into the larger social and economic context. He is more interested in Tahir and Hannah as individuals who have gone through ruin in their own ways.

Despite its terrific performances and its great use of locations, Shelter doesn't have enough substance to hold your attention or linger in the mind for long.

215-854-2736

Shelter ** 1/2 (out of four stars)

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Directed by Paul Bettany. With Anthony Mackie, Jennifer Connelly, Kevin Hoffman, Steve Cirbus. Distributed by Screen Media Films.

Running time: 1 hour, 45 mins.

Parent's guide: No MPAA rating (some violence, profanity, sexuality).

Playing at: AMC Loews

Cherry Hill 24.

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