For the first two minutes of Gimme Shelter, I thought this modestly budgeted drama was on to something. Crazier, I thought its star, Vanessa Hudgens, was on to something. We see her determinedly hacking off her hair in some crappy bathroom and then going out into the dingy, fluorescent-lit hallway of some public housing complex, looking for a pay phone and seeming at the end of her rope. Tattooed, body pierced, and covered in a film of sweat, Hudgens looks convincingly like someone who’s been knocked around hard by life. And then she gets to the phone and starts talking in a theater camp kid’s off-target approximation of a ghetto accent, and we’re reminded starkly that we’re watching the star of the High School Musical series. The spell is broken. Oh, well.
She portrays Agnes “Apple” Bailey, a 16-year-old girl who has finally had enough of the physical and sexual abuse she gets from her heroin junkie mom (Rosario Dawson) and her mom’s string of boyfriends. She runs away from her New Jersey home to get some assistance from the father she’s never met. He turns out to be Tom (Brendan Fraser), a Wall Street broker with a huge house, a wife (Stephanie Szostak), and two young children. He wants to help, but he’s overmatched by her rough upbringing and by the fact that she’s pregnant. Apple needs structure.
So does this movie. Granted, it wouldn’t have benefitted writer-director Ron Krauss to tell it in a formulaic three-act narrative, but this movie is just lumpy. The scene with Apple’s mom tearfully begging for forgiveness seems to come out of nowhere, and Apple’s interactions with a hospital chaplain (an overqualified James Earl Jones) meander through Bible verses without ever coming to a point.
The story as a whole was inspired by the work of Kathy DiFiore, the real-life New Jersey woman who turned her own house into a group home for pregnant teenagers like Apple with no place else to go. Yet the character of Kathy (Ann Dowd, who bears a marked resemblance to DiFiore) isn’t introduced until more than halfway through. Krauss makes a few efforts to show Apple bonding with the other teen mothers in the home, but the movie would have been much better off focusing on how Apple adjusts to such a regimented environment and uses it to find a way forward with her life. That might have given us the uplift that this movie is clearly aiming for. Instead, Krauss gives us some woolly messages of solidarity.
Even if Gimme Shelter were better made, Hudgens’ acting would sink it. She does well with the scene when Apple gives birth to her baby, but elsewhere she’s disastrously too well-bred for the part. This movie wants to be Precious, but the acting and various other shortcomings leave it well short of the mark.
Starring Vanessa Hudgens and Brendan Fraser. Written and directed by Ron Krauss. Rated PG-13.