Gimme shelter? How about gimme a better movie?
Conservatives have often accused Hollywood of having a liberal agenda, so they should be very happy with Gimme Shelter, writer-director Ron Krauss’s family-friendly film about a pregnant teenager that opens today. The picture has a not-so-subtle religious, pro-life message, and feels less like a major theatrical release and more like a made-for-TV movie that might air on the Family channel or the Christian Broadcasting Network. As a film review is not the place to delve too much into polarizing political debate, I’ll set that issue aside, and will review the film purely for its entertainment value. On that level, though, unfortunately, the film ultimately fails as a compelling dramatic narrative.
Vanessa Hudgens, shedding her squeaky clean High School Musical girl-next-door image, doesn’t quite cut it as the pregnant 16-year-old Apple, herself a product of a teenage pregnancy, who has spent her childhood shuffling between her emotionally and physically abusive mother (Rosario Dawson) and various foster care homes. Not only does Hudgens have trouble sustaining the rough, street-smart accent she creates for the character, but she chooses to play Apple as so over-the-top hostile, rude, and unlikable that you wonder why anyone would want to help her. You get the sense Hudgens is not so much creating a fresh, original, nuanced character here as she is channeling all the bad-girl, hard luck stories she’s ever watched into one extreme performance; she’s Acting with a capital A.
The film details Apple’s attempts to reconnect with her estranged, wealthy father Tom (Brendan Fraser, restrained, but decent enough), her decision to keep her baby despite her father and step-mother’s disapproval, and her arrival at a shelter for unwed, pregnant teen girls, a refuge she finds thanks to a kindly hospital chaplain (played by none other than James Earl Jones, a casting choice that no doubt will confuse and dismay Star Wars fans, who may wonder why Darth Vader is suddenly quoting bible passages).
Krauss based his film on a true story; he originally wanted to make a documentary about a real shelter in New York (the Seven Sources Shelter, founded by Kathy DiFiore, played here by Ann Dowd) that does take in pregnant teenage girls and young mothers. Instead, though, he changed his mind, and decided to create a dramatic picture focusing on just one of the girls he met. Therein lies this film’s fundamental problem: the story of the shelter, its founding, and its residents would have fared much better as a documentary. With such a format, Krauss would have been able to much more fully explore the background and history of the shelter and its residents, as well as their challenges, progress, and future plans.
As it stands, though, with this feature, we get only a superficial look at one girl’s story, and have no persuasive dramatic arc to sustain our interest. What kind of schooling are the girls receiving? Is there a college fund established for them, or their children? How many of them go on to college? Are the girls receiving any job training? How, why, and when do the girls leave the shelter, and are they given any follow up support when they do? What is the success rate of these teenagers in terms of staying healthy, and raising healthy, educated, happy children? How are the young mothers and their children faring one year, five years, ten years after leaving the shelter? None of these questions are answered. Krauss’s movie instead offers us only the immediate happy ending of the girls being accepted and protected at the shelter, which is highly unsatisfying as plots go; such an ending is actually not an ending at all, but merely a beginning. A documentary could have delved much more into these issues, and would have allowed us to see the girls’ successes and failures as they matured and left the shelter.
As a dramatic feature, then, the movie lacks the narrative depth and complex characters of better movies that tackle similar subjects – such as Juno, for example – and instead feels heavy handed and treacly in an old fashioned, After-School-Special kind of way. Krauss’s script, in fact, suffers greatly from huge amounts of obvious, prosaic exposition. Instead of taking the time to show us Apple’s increasing gratitude for the help and support she finds at the shelter, for example, Krauss gives us a simplistic scene of Apple stating directly to her father, “They make you feel like a family. They make you feel like you’re worth something. You feel like can go places in your life and succeed.” Okay. Got it. Message received.
We also get a scene of Apple reading aloud a letter her father wrote to her when she was small, when doing so is absolutely illogical – there is nobody in the room with her. She is simply reading the letter to the audience so we can hear it. Such expository short cuts as stand-ins for dramatic action make for an extremely static, unengaging film. Celine Dion music on the soundtrack and Apple’s transition from hoodies, cargo pants, and piercings to sun dresses, pastel cardigans, and make up also are quick, sloppy methods, devoid of powerful narrative action, that Krauss uses to signal that Growth Has Occurred.
It is also interesting to note that the word “adoption” is never once uttered in this picture; the girls instead are portrayed as noble “angels” (as they are referred to in one particularly odd scene, in which they solicit donations for the shelter at a church service – the only indication as to where the money for DiFiore’s endeavor comes from), whose desire to keep their children – even with no means of support, little or no education, and questionable futures – is seen only as virtuous and heroic. Finally, Apple makes a decision near the end of the film that feels completely false, and that goes against everything that has preceded it in terms of her character development. It’s hard to take a movie seriously that makes its main character behave in nonsensical ways just to stress its blatant themes.
Perhaps the only element of the film worth commending is Rosario Dawson’s standout portrayal of June, Apple’s desperate, drug-addled, mentally ill mother. Dawson gives a riveting, heart-wrenching, brave performance that makes Mary, the mother played by Mo’Nique in Precious, look like June Cleaver by comparison. A brief scene in which June unexpectedly runs into Apple’s father Tom after years of distance is by far the best in the movie, as Dawson allows us to see June’s anguish, regret, sorrow, anger, and embarrassment in just a few emotionally charged moments. Unfortunately, though, these five good minutes are not enough to recommend the film as whole. Perhaps Krauss will return to his original project one day and we’ll have a documentary to watch that will answer the questions this film raises; until then, this picture is a shallow substitute.
Gimme Shelter opens in Bay Area theaters today.