GIMME SHELTER Review

I have fortunately never been in the position to have to struggle or understand what it was like to have no one to turn to or to lean on. It is undoubtedly a scary feeling and something that seems brought on most of the time by nothing more than an unlucky set of circumstances. What I have never understood though, and movies have brought us countless characters with the same nature as our protagonist here, is why those who seem to struggle so much find it so hard to accept help. I understand it is easy to look at a situation as a person who’s never dealt with such harsh realities and not be able to understand the complexities of what is going through someone’s mind, to not understand how they see their life going nowhere and how the inability to trust anyone will forever hinder them in some way. These seem to be the points of tremendous stress and challenge in the life of Agnes Bailey or Apple as she prefers to be called as played by Vanessa Hudgens. Now, if you’ve heard about this movie it has probably not been for the fact it is based on a true story or that it is the first in many Christian-themed films this year that re-enforce a value system easily frowned upon if you don’t reside in the Bible belt. No, if you’ve heard anything about Gimme Shelter it is probably due to the transformation with which Hudgens has put herself through for this role. It is a film that at one point seems to have the smallest of aspirations to really be a kind of awards bait movie, while genuinely wanting to incite change in the heart of those who witness it. I was torn between what statement was really trying to be made here, what the agenda of the makers actually was as throughout the film I couldn’t read the true intentions of what the film was trying to accomplish. Is Hudgens almost trying too hard to be taken seriously? Is the tone a little overbearing and in many cases getting in the way of the already depressing story? Yea, in many ways it is and though there are redeeming moments that bring to light the type of solid drama this could have been Gimme Shelter ultimately suffers from poor craftsmanship more than anything else.

Agnes "Apple" Bailey (Vanessa Hudgens) is set on changing her life course when we first meet her.
The story, as I've just said and what you will first and foremost be told about the film after it begins, is that it is indeed based on a true story. A story countless women have shared and a forgotten demographic that is truly tragic and does indeed deserve to have some light shown upon it. The thought of unwed, teen mothers who have been through nothing but hell and have been served nothing but disadvantages their entire life usually leading to the inevitable pregnancy suffered from some type of abuse or forced sexual encounter is more than unfortunate, it is devastating. It is hard to blame any of these girls for the situations they end up in as it seems they were given little to work with since birth and many times it is even a miracle they made it this far and to the point they are able to bring new life into the world and maybe have a better understanding for what life can provide in terms of fulfillment. All of this could very well be applied to the life of Apple who we first meet in the bathroom of a rundown apartment building where she lives with her meth-head mom (Rosario Dawson with some serious meth teeth) and the parade of guys she no doubt has coming in and out of her room every night. Apple stares at herself in the mirror reassuring herself that she's not scared. She does this several more times throughout the film, stengthening, conditioning herself even for being able to go out into the world and give herself a real opportunity. As much of what you've heard about the film has to due with the physical appearance of the once High School Musical teen queen the opening scene, like American Hustle which was equally well known for Christian Bale's transformation, focuses solely on Hudgen's Apple cutting her hair so that she may disguise herself to look like a young, skater boy. She escapes the clutches of her mother who wants to keep her around for no other reason than she can still collect checks on her daughters behalf and is able to catch a bus to where her father, who she seems to have never met and has no relationship with, lives with his new family in hopes he might be willing to help her out after not ever being around as her father growing up. This man, Tom (Brendan Fraser looking a lot older and needing a haircut), happens to be a wealthy Wall Street guy and while seeming open to help at first it is the turn of his character and his new family that doesn't make much sense and renders the strong point the film is trying to subtly approach inauthentic.

I wasn't really sure what to expect from the film going in and as I said in the first paragraph I still wasn't sure by the end what exactly it was trying to do. It certainly has strong religious aspects to it with themes throughout and preached by the powerful James Earl Jones, a priest who frequents the hospital looking to help those in situations like Apple, but it never seems overbearing or comes off as cheesy as it does in most of the films made these days with similar intent. It is the quality of the performances and honestly, the strong credibility of the cast, that allow the seemingly pro-life position of the film to flourish where others have come off as more preachy and bent on getting their message across rather than focusing on the craft of how that message is conveyed. Writer and director Ron Krauss has few credits to his name and none of which you've likely heard of, but it is still in his hands that the movie falls short of what it could have been. It opens our eyes to the vast differences in the human experience and how existence at opposite ends of the spectrum is truly something to be considered and better thought out while it also seems to have spent more in music licensing than on the rest of the production. This is a very dour film, one that rarely comes up for a breath or nice laugh, but even when these do come in later in the film once Apple reaches the shelter for pregnant teens they seem forced due to the inexperience of the actors surrounding Hudgens. Throughout the solemn mood though we will occasionally hear top forty radio hits that stick out like a sore thumb and while Krauss no doubt thought the music might be a way to appeal to the teen audience that could learn lessons of cooperation and opportunity from the film it's also really obvious and doesn't meld with the rest of the film. Like much of the writing and some of the acting, it feels forced. Who knows though, for as much as it seems to have a position on these hot button issues it may very well be a simple re-telling of this compelling story while hoping to open up the awareness of these types of issues. Krauss may, for all we know, be a pro-choice advocate but found Apple's story to be so interesting and that he accepted Apple's choice to keep the child as exactly that thing he is pushing for people to better understand. Simply because Apple chose to have the baby doesn't make this a pro-life film (though it doesn't hurt); it could be just as much about the strength it would take to make that decision given the circumstances and grim outlook she is faced with when finding out the news of her preganancy. People will no doubt not choose to look at it this way though and simply use it as a statement to either work for or against their position.

Apple finds strength in the support of Cathy (Ann Dowd) as she delivers her baby.
All of that being said, Gimme Shelter does have attributes that outshine the amateur craftsmanship. There is a scene in the middle of the film in which things are finally stripped down to brass tacks and everyone involved is finally resorted to be real with one another and open up about the circumstances of the situation and what needs to be done from that point on. It involves only Rosario Dawson's June and Hudgen's Apple, but it is the first time we really see the turn in character for Apple. She has, up until that point, felt singular in her suffering and thus unable to let anyone else in. She has been distressed and looking for little more than an opportunity and even up to past here she finds it hard to accept help from those practically asking her to let them do so. It is in this moment though, as Dawson lays down real dramatic chops and Hudgens looks on doing more with her silent body language and facial expressions than she ever could with words that we see her make the tougher choice, but one that is ultimately best for her and the baby. It is a scene that sticks with you as much as the one later in the film in which Apple actually gives birth and Hudgens again pulls off that epiphany type moment where we see the unexpected joy in knowing that what she's brought into the world is something that gives her purpose and what she now has to live for. I won't lie, it got to me and that Hudgens was able to express this range of emotion was more than enough to make me respect the performance she was giving despite other times trying too hard. Having the likes of Jones, Fraser, Stephanie Szostak, Dawson and the wonderful Ann Dowd (if you haven't seen Compliance you should check that out now. It will piss you off, but is worth watching for Dowd's performance alone), who plays the founder of the shelter for pregnant teens and gives them a community of people to relate to and care about, two things most of those who come to stay with her have rarely known before, provide Hudgens with a springboard for which to go into the depths required to play someone who has been through as much as Apple had. It is both an impressive physical transformation and a specifically gauged performance that allows the natural progression of Apple's state of mind to come from that of a walking contradiction to someone comfortable with entering that next stage of life. The script does these characters some true injustices and the direction only serves to cheapen the performances and the story while never rendering the intention of the film completely clear.