Review: 'Gimme Shelter'

Directed and filmed with all the energy and imagination of a made-for-TV movie, Ron Krauss’ “Gimme Shelter” still aims admirably enough to tell an uplifting story. For all of Krauss’ clearly good intentions, the film still falls staggeringly flat, even with the inclusion of a bold and unexpected performance from Vanessa Hudgens, doing her damndest to break out of the Disney mold and turn in actual work here.

Hudgens stars in the film as Agnes “Apple” Bailey, a downtrodden teen from a hellish home that plots her escape from her drug-addicted mother (Rosario Dawson, monstrous here, and clearly well-schooled on Monique’s performance in “Precious”) when life throws a major curveball at her. Apple, we soon learn, is pregnant, and while Krauss never pays much attention to either the father or the act that got his leading lady there to this point (a strangely compelling choice in otherwise standard issue storytelling), her impending motherhood influences every choice that Apple makes along the way – even the bad ones.

Bent on finding some sort of fresh start for her and her baby, Apple heads to the suburbs to find her own father, a ritzy Wall Streeter played with all the aplomb and awkwardness of Brendan Fraser, who pops in and out of the film as Apple’s deadbeat dad, Tom. Apple’s integration into Tom’s white bread family doesn’t go so well, and when his vaguely evil wife sets Apple up with an abortion appointment, she takes off running. She needs, you guessed it, shelter.

Hudgens’ work in “Gimme Shelter” required sizable physical transformation from the actress – she reportedly gained weight and snipped her own locks for the part – and the result is certainly impressive. Physically, Hudgens nails her work as Apple, and not just in terms of basic appearance, but in the way she carries herself, the entirety of her mannerisms, her very presence on the screen. She’s boyish, zitty, hunched over, and profoundly closed off. It’s easily the most effective part of the entire film, and it’s a shame that her physical work doesn’t match her line delivery, which starts off wooden before eventually ending up as vaguely passable.

Apple does indeed find herself some shelter – literally – and after two acts of meandering narrative and little forward dramatic motion, it’s heartening to see “Gimme Shelter” evolve into something with a little more punch to it. And yet there’s still something off about the entire production. Perhaps it’s that the film is billed as being “based on a true story” (and that’s certainly one way to sell a tough-talking dramatic film like “Gimme Shelter”), but that it’s really a pretty loose interpretation of facts. It’s not exactly Apple’s story that’s the true one, instead it’s an amalgamation of various stories and experiences in the life of the woman who runs the shelter she eventually lives in, Kathy DiFiore (as played by Ann Dowd) and a local priest named Frank McCarthy (James Earl Jones, adding some much needed gravitas).

Kathy DiFiore may be a real person and Frank McCarthy may be a real person, but “Gimme Shelter” isn’t a film about Kathy DiFiore or Frank McCarthy, it’s a production that places both of them in a limited capacity in wholly supporting roles. It is a disingenuous and incoherent way to sell a film and a story, and its veracity feels pin-thin in comparison.

The film itself is also prone to moments of incoherence – from small details like a penniless Apple grabbing a seat on a Greyhound bus (one we don’t see her sneak on board, but one she certainly doesn’t pay for) to Kathy’s dramatic ramblings about how Apple can’t stay at the shelter without parental approval, all spouted before and during Apple’s initial stay at the shelter – that are made still worse by poor editing that mars much of the film’s middle act. Technically speaking, the film is much like Hudgens’ line delivery – passable, fine, occasionally striking, often embarrassing.

“Gimme Shelter” may have some heady topics at its center, from drug abuse to teen pregnancy to abortion, but Krauss approaches them with a lack of interest in stirring up discussion, instead focusing on Apple’s story as some kind of twisted fairy tale. The film’s overall message – succinctly put by its Facebook profile-friendly tagline, “Sometimes you have to leave home to find your family” – is literally delivered during its head-scratching final sequence, and perfectly encapsulates the film’s tendency to go for a temporarily soaring (and oddly insincere) story over a coherent or mature narrative.

SCORE: 4.2 / 10