Gimme Shelter (2014)
100 min., rated PG-13.
It seems every movie nowadays is marketed or purported to be "based on" or "inspired by" a "true story" or "true events." That's fine and all; truth is stranger than fiction after all, but it doesn't always make for a worthwhile movie. One can certainly feel the sweat and tears that have gone into a small passion project like "Gimme Shelter," written and directed by Ron Krauss and finally seeing a release by Roadside Attractions (it was shot in 2011). At one point, the filmmaker spent time living at a shelter and intended to make a documentary about Kathy DiFiore, the founder of Several Sources Shelters who helped the homeless get on their feet, but his narrative feature is discouragingly more of a well-intentioned "Afterschool Special" than a successful movie. Krauss should have gone with his first instinct. The chief commodity here is Vanessa Hudgens, the "High School Musical" ingénue who has already daringly broken free of the Disney teen machine with "Spring Breakers" and has now taken it upon herself to play a lead role without an ounce of vanity or cleanliness. In "Gimme Shelter," she loses herself as Agnes "Apple" Bailey, a greasy, pierced, tatted 16-year-old who's been passed off to different foster homes since age 8 before her abusive, meth-addicted, welfare-cashing mother, June (Rosario Dawson), gained custody. Finally, she chops off her hair and leaves, but before even finding shelter, Apple realizes she's pregnant. Homelessness, child abuse, and teen pregnancy are all sobering subjects and could have been melded into a wrenching story that needed to be told, but they deserve a less clumsy touch than what this pro-life teen-runaway melodrama has been handed.
Leading a hardscrabble life, Apple isn't exactly an unblemished martyr, either. She's guarded, uncooperative, belligerent, and petulant to even those who want to help her, primarily her biological father, Tom Fitzpatrick (Brendan Fraser). When Apple hops on a Greyhound and finds the New Jersey address of a gated mansion from a letter, Tom and his prim wife, Joanna (Stephanie Szostak), feed her and give her a place to stay before she can get back on her feet. Then she realizes she's pregnant. When the Fitzpatricks try reasoning with her and knock some sense into her that she has no education or means, Apple goes to her appointment to have an abortion (a word that is never spoken), but then flees, deciding she wants to keep the child. Cold, lost, starving, and resisting help, Apple then finds herself at a shelter for troubled teenage mothers founded and run by Kathy (Ann Dowd). She doesn't fit in at first, with every mother taking care of her crying baby, but Apple is now in a warm, safe, and positive environment, as long as her mother stays away. Can she conquer her own misery and handle a baby of her own?
Laying on the grit and suffering with Alain Marcoen's deliberately roughed-up, closeup-reliant camerawork and Lana Del Rey's "Born To Die" on the soundtrack, "Gimme Shelter" truly begins as a hard-knock-life drama. Life could not be less rosy for Apple, as she walks the streets, finding overnight shelter in an unlocked car and then going dumpster diving for food. Finally, she steals an SUV, gets into an accident, and then ends up in the hospital before waking up to Father Frank McCarthy (James Earl Jones), who shows her to the clinic. Writer-director Krauss either didn't trust his own story or didn't know how to tell it because he continuously reminds his audience that this is an Issues Movie with a capital I. Admiration can count for something, but it's all in the telling. Virtually going from A to Z, the storytelling grows rushed, disjointed, and unbelievable in showing Apple's self-improvement and her father's turnaround. Story beats and scenes seem to be missing, unless the shift happened off-screen. If the other teen mothers at the clinic have something to do with Apple's redemption, there are only half-hearted attempts in developing characters out of them or showing their interaction with Apple (like when they all break into Kathy's office at night to read their case files and decorate the shelter for Christmas). By the time Apple is ready to give birth, there has already been an abrupt change—she looks like a flower in sundresses with no bags under her eyes, no piercings, a more conservative haircut, no bad attitude and a sunnier outlook on life—which is nice, but the way it's conveyed in an "everything will be all right" happy ending feels unconvincingly simplified and not dramatically earned. What began as a tough story loses the resonance and raw ring of truth it tried working up to for a trite, earnestly hopeful and half-finished treatment.
While it's almost a cliché now that actresses don't stretch themselves until they have a really seedy, deglammed role (like the beautiful Charlize Theron taking on her role as real-life lesbian prostitute serial killer Aileen Wournos in "Monster"), Vanessa Hudgens has enough of an edge about her that a mostly persuasive performance comes through. It can be overwrought when she casts so many dirty looks and plays up the tough street-punk affect in baggy clothing, but her game commitment can't be denied. Another vanity-free team player: an unrecognizably monstrous, grimed- and uglied-up Rosario Dawson dials it up to eleven like a gross, bat-shit crazy character out of Harmony Korine's "Gummo" with a tinge of tragic vulnerability. Nearly rivaling Mo'Nique's irredeemably awful mother in "Precious" with yellow rotten teeth, Dawson expends all effort into a ferocious performance, to be sure, but something about it just smacks of actorly self-consciousness and hands-off direction. In one moment, June attacks Apple with a razor blade between her teeth, ready to slash her own daughter, and it's such an alarming moment but botched by incompetent framing. As Apple's father, Brendan Fraser is fine, conveying regret, apology and the hope of mutual trust. Though he works on Wall Street and can more than support his own family, Tom is thankfully not written on one note as a wealthy, judgmental jerk. Stephanie Szostak, as Tom's wife, is given little more to do than uncertain reactions and empty promises that it's hard to get a real grasp on her character. Playing a version of the real Kathy DiFiore, Ann Dowd is an invaluable presence. As Kathy was once homeless herself and has been running the shelter for twenty years, the actress balances authority with loving compassion. Also, James Earl Jones floats in and out, never failing to bring a certain amount of class and warmth but, go figure, given speeches and Biblical sermonizing more than a role with meat to it. Of the girls, Emily Meade and Dascha Polanco (Netflix's "Orange Is the New Black") stand out more than the others, but their roles as Cassie and Carmel are still too severely undernourished to make an actual impression.
Rife with religious iconography (even in a pinwheel) and ending on a postscript with photos of the real people, "Gimme Shelter" clearly wants to move, inspire, and maybe even proselytize with its story of hopelessness and recovery, but instead leaves the viewer feeling manipulated and emotionally disconnected. With 2009's likeminded but harsher and unshakable "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire" still demanding the attention of those who never stuck it out, there is no comparison with this child-gloved indie, which treats its own subject matter as something that could have aired on Lifetime or Oxygen. Above everything else, Hudgens (bless her heart) proves she deserves to be taken more seriously as an actress who can do the heavy lifting rather than play the sweet apple of Zac Efron's eye in the halls of East High School.