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Hudgens Struggles To Convince In Drama 'Gimme Shelter'

For The Heights

Published: Sunday, February 2, 2014

Updated: Sunday, February 2, 2014 21:02

gimme shelter

Courtesy of Roadside Attractions

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Ron Krauss’ Gimme Shelter is tragic in both content and execution. Based on a true story, the film follows Agnes “Apple” Bailey (Vanessa Hudgens), a pregnant teenager on the run from her crackhead mother and abortion-pushing father and stepmother. Finding refuge in a shelter for young mothers, Apple—with the help of Father McCarthy (James Earl Jones) and Kathy (Ann Dowd)—overcomes her circumstances and finds meaning in her life before the film’s happy, schlocky conclusion. Despite such a gritty premise, Krauss’ work falls flat. This compelling and heart-wrenching story manifests as a simplistic mess plagued with cartoonish characters and lackluster writing.

Gimme Shelter’s failures are largely due to its one-dimensional characters and inconsistent acting. Despite an admirable effort, Hudgens alternates between decent and unconvincing (though certainly not terrible). Apple’s mother June (Rosario Dawson) has one interesting scene that hints at some depth, but is otherwise the crazy, daughter-stabbing antagonist who is mildly overacted by Dawson. Apple’s estranged millionaire father Tom (Brendan Fraser) looks confused, annoyed, or just plain awkward the entire film. His wife Joanna (Stephanie Szostak) is especially ridiculous, depicted as a Disney-esque wicked stepmother.

When Jones first appears in the film, there is the tantalizing hope that the film can be saved. Unfortunately, even he can’t pull off Krauss’ abysmal dialogue. The script bounces between generic blathering and corny, absurd metaphors involving pinwheels.  
More than anything, Gimme Shelter is exasperatingly rushed. Ironically, the opening caption: “based on a true story” fades until only “true story” is left lingering on the screen, as if to emphasize how truly “true” this true story is. Regardless, too many elements of the film feel woefully unconvincing. For example, Joanna, the uptight stepmother, is appalled by Apple’s intrusion into her luxurious mansion. She abandons Apple at a local hospital, tries to manipulate Tom into getting rid of her, forces her into an abortion clinic, and is then absent for the rest of the film. During the ending, Joanna magically appears as a loving and compassionate person. Gimme Shelter consistently offers similar disconnects.

Relationships in the film are rushed and devoid of substance. We never get a concrete sense of the history between Apple’s biological parents, let alone how one ended up as a Wall Street millionaire and the other a green-toothed junkie. Tom and June share one scene—Tom awkwardly asks, “Is that you?,” June leaves, and that’s about it. Another problem is that Krauss focuses solely on Hudgens, to the point of detriment. Upon entering the shelter, Apple encounters the first good thing in her life, a sanctuary filled with people who care for her. Regrettably, the bonding between these girls is flat. All Krauss contributes to this critical development is a couple of corny scenes and one instance where the girls read each other’s background files for two minutes. There’s no real intimacy with the other girls, and by the end of the film, it’s difficult to remember any of their names. Consequently, when the group hugs and cries at the end of the film, it all feels embarrassingly anticlimactic.

One of Gimme Shelter’s few redeeming qualities is that while the film is noticeably pro-life, this isn’t shoved in the audience’s face. Given the nature of the story, a pro-life undertone is quite reasonable. After all, Apple and her baby endured abhorrent circumstances and still eventually found happiness. The ending feels so much like an unrealistic fairytale, however, that Krauss does his own politics a disservice. All of Apple’s problems are vaguely attributed to “the system,” but any insightful depth or elaboration is completely absent. It also felt odd that Ronald Reagan is randomly mentioned in awkward juxtaposition to Mother Theresa in the film, although the implication is probably unintentional. Indeed, to suggest Gimme Shelter had political subtext may be giving Krauss too much credit, considering his film resembles a sloppy MTV special or an after-school program addressing teen pregnancy.

This movie may be enjoyable if you turn your brain off before watching it, but otherwise it’s a clear flop. While Gimme Shelter isn’t really terrible enough to be offensive, the real “Apple” Bailey, and every young woman in a similar position, deserved a better movie.

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