In Gimme Shelter, Vanessa Hudgens plays Agnes “Apple” Baily, a teenager who’s spent most of her life being passed around (and sometimes abused) by foster caretakers and her drug-addicted mother, June (Rosario Dawson). Apple finally decides to run away from home and contact her biological father – Wall Street broker Tom Fitzpatrick (Brendan Fraser) – in the hope that he will support her long enough for her to land on her own two feet, get a job and start living on her own.
However, when it turns out that Apple is pregnant and Tom disagrees with her decision to keep the baby, the former takes off, eventually getting in an accident and landing in the hospital. There, she meets the kindly Father McCarthy (James Earl Jones), who convinces Apple to stay at a shelter for pregnant teen girls, run by a spiritual woman named Kathy (Ann Dowd). There, the residents provide Apple with the kind of familial love and support that she’s never experienced – but will her mother let her go so easily?
Inspired by a true story (the actual people are shown during the end credits), Gimme Shelter is a work of gritty social realism that draws from compelling real-life events, but fails to properly explore the many important issues that it raises – much less get at the narrative’s deeper implications – and thus, the film mostly amounts to two hours of half-baked sermonizing and unsophisticated melodrama.
Much of the fault for that lies with Gimme Shelter writer/director Ron Krauss (Amexica), whose script work is clunky and lazy, in general. Krauss takes a stance on a number of polarizing discussion topics (class-based privilege, abortion, faith), but he often skips on providing a proper or even-handed argument to support his positions. Furthermore, from a pure storytelling perspective, Krauss’ script often “cheats” and provides the expected cathartic payoff without showing the necessary setup first. Indeed, several character arcs and subplots progress from point A to B, but because it usually doesn’t demonstrate how they got there, the film provides viewers with little reason to be emotionally invested.
That’s a shame too, since Vanessa Hudgens doesn’t at all embarrass herself with her performance as Apple. While Hudgens has already taken steps to shed her Disney Channel good-girl image (see: Sucker Punch, Spring Breakers, etc.), Gimme Shelter is her first attempt at getting beneath the surface of a sympathetic, yet volatile and very damaged person. Even when she’s not fishing scraps out of dumpsters or scowling with her face covered in grime, Hudgens manages to convey a fair amount through simple facial tics and expressions; if she starts picking betters scripts and directors to work with, she just might have a future as a serious actress.
For the most part, Krauss avoids exploitative filmmaking techniques – save when he frames Hudgens and Dawson’s bruised and battered faces in close-up for easy dramatic effect – instead relying on simple framing and variety in edits (quick cuts, long takes) to create an intimate atmosphere that keeps the focus on the characters and pulls viewers into their troubled, yet insulated world. In Gimme Shelter, Krauss doesn’t really manage to create a real feel of time and place, but that seems to be the point – that these events could just as well be happening today as they could in the past.
Despite often being saddled with pompous monologues or hokey sequences to act out, the older and more experienced character actors in the cast (James Earl Jones and Ann Dowd, to be exact) prove able to bring out the real humanity in their otherwise flat characters. The same holds true for Brendan Fraser and Rosario Dawson – the latter stuck performing with grime-covered teeth out of a campy horror movie – as they each get a scene or two to flex their acting muscles.
The rest of the supporting cast includes a handful of faces that you might recognize without knowing the person’s name, like Stephanie Szostak (Iron Man 3), Dascha Polanco (Orange is the New Black), and Emily Meade (Trespass). While they’re all fine in their limited capacity, they’re not given much to do – and when they are, their scenes usually end up going nowhere and result in dangling plot threads or unearned payoffs (as mentioned before).
Regardless of whether or not you agree with Krauss’ political/philosophical leanings in Gimme Shelter, the film does generally have its heart in the right place and it aspires to shed light on social problems that aren’t easy to talk about. Unfortunately, that and a couple of respectable performances are the only saving graces in a movie that feels like the final result of a C-grade director having watched Precious and decided that he could do better.
In case you’re still undecided, here is the trailer for Gimme Shelter:
Gimme Shelter is now playing in theaters. It is 100 minutes long and Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material involving mistreatment, some drug content, violence and language – all concerning teens.