Gimme Shelter film review
Gimme Shelter (2014)
Vanessa Hudgens, Rosario Dawson, Brendan Fraser, James Earl Jones, Ann Dowd, Stephanie Szostak
CRITIC’S RATING: ** stars (out of 4 stars)
It appears as if the majority of ex-Disney Channel teen idols are in the automatic mode of wiping off their squeaky-clean images of adolescence and moving on to more challenging material beyond the juvenile jubilation of their tyke-driven television beginnings. This is certainly not a knock against them to do so especially if they want to progress from boob tube child stars to the mature ranks of young adult performers wanting to embrace a productive film career. Of course this means finally shaking off the teenybopper worship from their admiring kiddie fans and gaining a newer and older audience to appreciate the emerging talents.
Actress-singer Vanessa Hudgens is one of the aforementioned Disney darlings looking to transition from her sugary High School Musical persona to more edgier fare on the big screen. Hudgens got raw and raunchy in Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers and now looks to take on a redemptive and ragged role in writer-director Ron Krauss’s well-intentional but predictably pat and manipulative melodrama Gimme Shelter. Relentlessly preachy as it tries to push all the red buttons of a socially conscious drama that ranges from child neglect to chronic homelessness, Gimme Shelter is a saccharine-coated saga that means well but falls short of its emotional goal to be compelling as a turbulent tear-jerker. Still, one cannot fault Hudgens in trying to be ambitious enough to labor in a gritty yet mawkish After School special that feels like a Lifetime movie for wayward girls.
It does make sense for Krauss to cast the former Disney debutante Hudgens as the down-and-out, angst-ridden teen facing an identity crisis in personalized mayhem due to the young actress’s devoted following. True, Gimme Shelter is a cautionary tale that wants to inspire and ignite feelings of destitution. Unfortunately, Krauss’s sketchy narrative (we are told that this film is based on a true story–a cliched tactic in its own right) never quite achieves the stimulating horror and outrage in comparison to say the highly heralded and hostile 2009 film Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire that offered a more convincing and intimate landscape of a teenager’s tumultuous existence. Gimme Shelter, although demonstrating some traces of the agonizing realities of a flawed and frustrated youthful female, simply does not have the powerful scope to elevate its material beyond its exploitative leanings.
Hudgens stars as the moody and guarded 16-year old Agnes “Apple” Bailey, a faceless product of the “system” where she has bounced around countless shelters and foster homes with no foreseeable hope in sight. Apple’s drug-addled, welfare fraudulent mother June (as portrayed hauntingly by an unrecognizable Rosario Dawson) is an obvious hot mess to say the least. Feeling understandably despondent about her current situation, Apple physically changes her appearance (via a butch-like shortened haircut) and sets out to find the whereabouts of her father as she strives for a new beginning in her chaotic young life.
The good news–briefly–is that Apple is able to find and stay temporarily with the father Tom Fitzpatrick (Brendan Fraser) that previously abandoned her when he was a teenager. It seems rather surrealistic to Apple that her Wall Street whiz father is wealthy and has a family that includes his prickly wife Joanna (Stephanie Szostak) and two children. He does reluctantly accept the responsibility of providing Apple a home but when it is revealed that his desperate daughter is pregnant this revelation is pretty much an icebreaker. Apple must either terminate her pregnancy or leave the premises and not saddle her father with this pending dilemma of hers. Soon, the vulnerable Apple is out on the streets yet again. So where can she turn to now? How will she handle her survival mode now that she has to consider the baby she is carrying?
Thankfully, Apple does have a guardian angel in the form of the kind and charitable chaplain Frank McCarthy (James Earl Jones). Eventually, Father McCarthy is able to secure some much needed shelter for Apple and her baby by directing her to the attention of Kathy DiFiore (Ann Dowd), an idealistic overseer at a teenage mother’s shelter specializing in dealing with impressionable young girls and their infants that need the vital support. The hardened and cynical Apple learns gradually how to appreciate, trust and relax in her new setting that encourages and reinforces a sense of security and stable mind. The question remains, however, is she able to shake the horrible and everlasting psychological damage of her damaged mother June?
There are many things that one can find irritable about Gimme Shelter from its over-stocked brand of pathos to the unevenness of the manufactured religious undertones. Still, the story is potent and powerful in its spotty parts as it tries to convey a spiritual message about hope, faith and the modern-day obstacles facing teen girls and young women on the road to uncertainty. No one can doubt the uplifting sentiments in Krauss’s probing exposition. The tension-filled moments are a mixed bag because occasionally the dramatic heft feels forced in its heavy-handed servings.
Hudgens does a decent job at displaying her elements of despair and degradation as she instills Apple Bailey with an uncontrollable sadness that we instinctively feel tapping at her wounded psyche at a moment’s notice. Specifically, Hudgens’s Apple is believably pushed to the limit when interacting with Dawson’s unflattering and opportunistic junkie June prowling for a possible payday from her disillusioned offspring. Okay, Hudgens and Dawson will not make anybody forget the Oscar-caliber turns by the far superior conflicted mother-daughter tandem of Mo’Nique-Gabourey Sidibe from the aforementioned Precious anytime soon. Veteran Jones, who has played conscientious men of the urban community before, does not demonstrate anything distinctive here. Fraser’s Tom Fitzgerald strangely does not register as Apple’s estranged daddy dearest. Dowd is serviceable as DiFiore, the real-life blueprint for the crusader involving the placement and protection of these exposed teens and their babies.
Some may find Gimme Shelter as a touching tale of adversity…and why not? After, it has its share of revolving door plight–teen pregnancy, parental abuse/neglect, homelessness, criminal intent, an overburdened and underfunded foster home/shelter bureaucracy, unwanted minors and substance abuse. Sometimes just being a touching tale with the risk of maintaining woeful tepid trappings is not enough to translate into solid storytelling.
NOTE: Focus of New York film critic Frank Ochieng is a member of: