Gimme Shelter

Gimme Shelter Movie ReviewRoadside Attractions
PG-13 for mature thematic material involving mistreatment, some drug content, violence and language — all concerning teens.
Running time: 101 minutes.
One and a half stars out of four.

“Gimme Shelter” is a clunkily-made, batshit-crazy parable that hammers you over the head with its Christian, anti-abortion message. An after-school special blown up on the big screen, it stridently aims to inspire you. More likely, it’ll make you cringe.

Vanessa Hudgens does deserve credit, though, for further shedding her Disney Channel packaging. Following increasingly daring roles in films including “Sucker Punch” and “Spring Breakers,” Hudgens continues to bludgeon her good-girl image. Here, she plays an abused, pregnant teen who runs away from her volatile, drug-addicted mother (a feral Rosario Dawson). Covered in tats, piercings and 15 pounds of extra body weight, with shorn locks and smudges of dark eyeliner, Hudgens is unrecognizable.

Just look at the picture up there: If you didn’t know that was the adorably perky star of the “High School Musical” movies, who would you think it was? It’s hard not to admire the intention, the dedication, the almost animalistic demeanor she’s achieved. But then she opens her mouth, and her stiff line readings of awkward dialogue make it impossible to become emotionally engaged by her character’s journey.

Clearly, writer-director Ronald Krauss means well, too. He spent a great deal of time with real-life pregnant teens in hopes of infusing his film with a feeling of authenticity. But the total lack of artistry, nuance and sometimes even basic competence is so distracting as to be destructive. He’s also preaching to the choir — sometimes literally, given the crucial role the church has in his film. “Gimme Shelter” finds no room for debate; it reaffirms what like-minded viewers already believe about a divisive and emotional topic. In that regard, it actually does a disservice to young women who might find themselves in the same difficult state.

At the film’s start, Hudgens’ Agnes Bailey — who prefers to be called Apple — dares to flee the clutches of her junkie, welfare-leeching mom to find the biological father she never knew. Turns out that the man who fathered her in a youthful fit of unprotected sex, Tom Fitzpatrick (Brendan Fraser), is now a wealthy Wall Street financier living in a McMansion in leafy New Jersey. His prim, thin wife (Stephanie Szostak) and their two perfect children are appalled at the sight of her gruff and grimy appearance.

But soon, it become obvious that Apple is pregnant (although the identity of the father and the circumstances surrounding her conception are strangely irrelevant here). While the uptight stepmom makes the logical suggestion that perhaps Apple is not prepared to become a mother under these circumstances at age 16, Apple has made up her mind — she’s keeping her baby — likely out of an innate sense of rebellion rather than any maternal instinct. Tom and his wife are depicted as moneyed, distant and soulless for arranging an appointment for her at a local clinic (no one actually says the word “abortion,” by the way) but it doesn’t matter. Once again, Apple dashes back out onto the streets, alone.

Eventually, she ends up crossing paths with a kindly but firm priest played by James Earl Jones. When James Earl Jones tells you to go to church, you go to church. When James Earl Jones tells you to pray, you pray. And when he arranges a bed for you a nearby shelter for pregnant teens, that’s clearly where you must go. While Apple is at the core of “Gimme Shelter,” the fundamental story is about Kathy DiFiore, the real-life shelter founder who was once homeless herself. (She’s played by Ann Dowd, who gave such a startling performance as a fast-food manager in “Compliance.” Now THERE’S a film that sparks debate.)

Apple’s interactions with the other young mothers at DiFiore’s home — which is cluttered with photographs of Ronald Reagan and Mother Teresa and posters of inspirational religious messages — feel uncomfortably forced. Her eventual softening into a proper young lady — complete with flowered sundresses, cardigan sweaters and clean, pretty air — comes out of nowhere. And the stunning 180-degree turn on the part of key characters (that’s not really a spoiler now, is it?) is thoroughly unconvincing. The emotional catharsis the film strives for is unearned, rendering its ultimate uplift not just hollow but laughable.


17 Comments on “Gimme Shelter

  1.  by  Christian Toto

    “Gimme Shelter” finds no room for debate; it reaffirms what like-minded viewers already believe about a divisive and emotional topic.”

    Would you say the same about a film by Michael Moore? Gasland? Other films with an undeniable left-of-center bias?

    It’s certainly game on for a critic to deconstruct a film as you’ve done here, but comments like this suggest a reviewing bias that isn’t fair. Thoughts?

  2.  by  Christian Toto

    One more note … I may be unfairly lumping you in with many other critics who are guilty of what I’m describing. Your AP reviews were among the more balanced accounts I’ve read (as were Roger Moore’s syndicated reviews). Still, would love your feedback on my question!

    •  by  Christy Lemire

      Christian, thanks for the kind words and the thoughtful questions. I’d agree with you that Michael Moore also comes in with an angle, a point he wants to drive home forcefully, and he can’t be swayed. But a) he’s a documentarian, that’s his raison d’etre, and b) there’s an artistry to his work — intelligence, passion, style — that is woefully lacking here. Moore has the ability to enlighten and persuade; this film’s one-sidedness feels mawkish and preachy.

      •  by  Christy Lemire

        Also — and I wish I’d remembered to include this in my review — it’s possible to make a movie about spirituality that depicts a character’s journey of faith with complexity, humanity and — above all — authenticity. Vera Farmiga’s “Higher Ground” is a great example of that.

      •  by  Chaz

        Michael Moore is a documentarian? That’s news to me. What he produces are filmed editorials, but they aren’t documentaries. As you say, “he comes in with an angle.” His films aren’t narrative features, so maybe it wasn’t the best comparison. But I think, Christy, you contradict yourself in this response.

  3.  by  Eric Myers

    Respectfully disagree. The film is not ultimately about pregnancy, or the Christian right, or the abortion debate. It’s about a young girl’s struggle to find her place in a chaotic and turbulent world. Superb performances – particularly by Hudgens – hold the film up. It’s compassionate without being sappy, inspiring without being over the top. Highly recommend.

  4.  by  James

    I love it how complexity no longer means complex when talking about spirituality, it simply means contradictory or partial belief. That’s bull. You didn’t like this movie because #1 it affirms traditional american values and #2 it isn’t slick. It seems that “Inspires debate” seems to mean it flies in the face of traditional values, well, fine, just say that and stop using code, because you make people like me have to come it and translate for you.

  5.  by  Sadie

    We get it your pro choice but don’t take it out on the movie. Your a critic so don’t let your personal belief system get in the way of that.

  6. Pingback: "Gimme Shelter" film disgusts critics and flocks pro-life movie-goers

  7.  by  Cori

    It baffles me how you shut this movie down because it is about a Christian institution and because the main character decides to keep her baby instead of getting an abortion. For one, the actual clinic that this movie is based off of is Christian, correct? Okay and this institution houses young mothers who decided against abortion, correct? So please tell me how this movie “hammers you over the head with its Christian, anti-abortion message”? This movie is staying true in that way to the institution and the girls that stay there. Yes the step mom and father both appear villainous for basically forcing the girl to get an abortion, but how is not respecting her wants and setting an appointment THE DAY AFTER she finds out she’s pregnant for an appointment not villainous? I’m also baffled that you get payed to write this bias crap, please stop being a critic.

    •  by  Katie

      While I agree with you that the father and step mother making an appointment for an abortion for her is pretty gross, this movie absolutely is absolutely a near two hour long anti abortion message. Now don’t get me wrong…I believe every woman is entitled to her own choice when it comes to her body, whether you are a 16 year old girl who had sex once and got pregnant or if you are a 30 year old woman not yet ready to handle the IMMENSE responsibility of not just being a mother, but just being pregnant by itself. But as beautiful as this true story was, this is not what just happens to people in reality. This read to me: don’t get an abortion, have your baby and everything will fall into place.” That is not reality. I’m sorry but this movie was just ridiculous.

      •  by  Sarah Z

        Not to mention, abandoning a stable living situation for your baby daughter to live in a shelter. Maybe the real person lucked out, but boy, imagine explaining that to your kid if any one of a million things had gone wrong.
        “Well we COULD have lived with your rich grandfather, buuuut my pride.”

  8.  by  Cori

    I meant to say the day after she finds out she’s pregnant for an abortion, not appointment

  9.  by  Katie

    i agree whole heartedly that this is the biggest Christian propaganda film I have ever seen. While I support a woman’s choice to keep her child (that is why it is called pro CHOICE), this movie does everything to not only ignore the term “abortion” entirely, but it also seeks to dress it up as the big bad wolf, almost giving it an entity all its own.
    Unrelated…did anyone else notice the blatant rip off of “girl interrupted” in the scene where they sneak downstairs and hand out their files to one another? Seriously I wanted to puke it was so obvious.
    This movie had so much potential and just fell so short.

  10.  by  Td

    I can’t help getting the same feeling of bias from your review that you claim is rampant in the movie. Your personal aversion to a young girl who chooses differently than pro- choice advocates would have her choose is what your review ends up communicating. This is unprofessional and narrow-minded and prohibits you from seeing the real merit in the acting and in the the vital message bringing awareness to the plight of these kids. I’m anti-abortion and yet I can easily empathize with what leads girls into a clinic to end a pregnancy. It’s also perfectly credible that she wouldn’t be able to go through with it. You may not be able to disengage completely from your own belief system when writing a review, but as a journalist, you can take a more realistic stab at being fair.