Syrupy dialog and heavy-handed messaging muddle a story filled with good intentions.
Vanessa Hudgens gets her hands dirty in Ronald Krauss’ pro-life message movie Gimme Shelter. She gains 15 pounds, tries on an accent, and cuts her hair short. The young actress’ commitment to the role of 16-year-old Apple Bailey–a homeless, damaged, pregnant teen who finds sanctuary at a warm New Jersey shelter–didn’t end with her outward appearance, either: she spent three weeks living with the girls at the real-life shelter the film is based on. All the work paid off, as she does a solid job of disappearing into the role, with her glitzy red-carpet looks and bubbly public persona adequately melted away.
Apple is an angry, disheveled teen with a nasty attitude that screams “keep your damn distance”. After fleeing from her yellow-toothed, violently abusive, meth-addict mother June (Rosario Dawson, embarrassingly over-the-top), she breaks into the gated suburban property of her estranged, loaded father Tom (Brendan Fraser) and his wife Joanna (Stephanie Szostak), carrying a letter he wrote her when he was born. During her stay Apple discovers she’s pregnant, and Tom and Joanna (who’s more than miffed that Apple’s dirtying up her McMansion) suggest she get an abortion.
The “A” word is never muttered, but this is the point in the film where the the thinly veiled Catholic messages really begin to pile on. The film portrays the suggestion of an abortion as absolutely evil, which would be fine, if only Krauss (who wrote and directed) had earned it. Certainly a film should stand its ground with conviction if it wants to make a statement, but Krauss’ script is so dismissive of the pro-choice perspective that he chooses to portray it as simply evil and wrong. The issue deserves a more intelligent approach than that.
Apple runs away again, and after stealing and crashing a car, she ends up in the hospital where she meets a kind-hearted clergyman named Frank (James Earl Jones, predictably decent) who sets her up to live in a home for unwed pregnant teens run by Kathy DiFiore, played by Ann Dowd. In reality, DiFiore has been running her shelters and taking in girls just like Apple for over 30 years. Though there isn’t a real Apple Bailey, the character is based on the combined stories from actual girls who stay at DiFiore’s shelter, some of whom appear in the film.
The film gets super syrupy from here, attempting to get across that Apple’s connecting with the other girls on a meaningful level while being transformed into a respectable, responsible young lady by the kind-yet-stern DiFiore (played well by Dowd). The transition from messy street kid to dress-wearing nice girl doesn’t feel earned in the slightest, due to Krauss’ priority abruptly shifting to conveying how much of a godsend DiFiore and her shelter are. There’s a melodramatic scene in which DiFiore intercepts June when she attempts to snatch Apple from the home against her will. (Dawson spits and growls like a rabid pit bull and is just awful.) The scene should be about Apple, but it’s clearly designed to showcase Difiore’s goodness. Apple’s story gets lost in all the adulation.
Gimme Shelter was clearly made with good intentions, and if nothing else, Krauss and Hudgens deliver their message with conviction. Problem is, the vessel they’ve constructed to deliver said message is chock-full of holes.