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.