“Gimme Shelter” strives to be a gritty drama about an abused teen struggling to find a better life. But it comes across more as a calculated vehicle for a former teen idol to find better roles.
By JON NICCUM
Special to The Star
Vanessa Hudgens already proved in last year’s disturbing “Spring Breakers” that she wields skills well beyond the charming perkiness of the “High School Musical” franchise. She goes even deeper in the episodic “Gimme Shelter,” but without much support from the filmmakers.
We meet her character, Agnes “Apple” Bailey, as she repeats the phrase, “I can do this. I’m not scared. It’s OK.” She is preparing to escape from her drug-addicted mom (Rosario Dawson), despite little money and few options. Dirty and bruised, sporting a neck tattoo and facial piercings, Apple is the definition of a street urchin.
She is also pregnant.
Her only prospect is a letter bearing the address of her absentee father (the bland Brendan Fraser). Her arrival at his New Jersey mansion throws the Wall Streeter’s comfy life into chaos. He’s well-meaning and feels guilty — a rare combination for a successful stock broker — yet his wife (Stephanie Szostak) doesn’t approve of an abrasive runaway sharing the house with their grade school-age kids.
“Gimme Shelter” claims to be based on a true story, which is somewhat misleading. It’s actually a medley of experiences culled from two key players in Apple’s story: Kathy DiFiore (Ann Dowd), who runs a faith-based shelter for pregnant teens, and local priest Frank McCarthy (James Earl Jones). Their attempts at instilling an attitude of mutual respect in this bad Apple seem more grounded in reality than her other interactions.
McCarthy tells her in his booming voice, “Never apologize for your true feelings.”
The 25-year-old Hudgens tries so hard to generate the “true feelings” of 16-year-old Apple. It’s a demanding role, and she’s in practically every frame. She looks convincingly awful — as deglamorized as possible. Boyish. Dumpy. Slumped posture. Unable to make eye contact with adults. Hudgens evidently studied Bex Taylor-Klaus’ character Bullet from the TV series “The Killing.”
She’s flanked by some fine actors. Dowd brings the same earthy naturalism she did to “Compliance,” and the underrated Dawson is convincingly threatening as a possessive welfare mom. If only they were given commensurate material. Indie writer-director Ron Krauss delivers an amateurish script, compelling his characters to say exactly what they’re feeling and explain what they’re doing. There’s no internal mystery, just performers fulfilling predetermined duties.
Occasionally, some genuine emotion slips through, as when Apple holds a roommate’s baby for the first time, contextualizing the reality of her plight. But moments often play out more stagy. Apple’s first sit-down meal with her dad’s white-bread family is about as goofy a study of class interaction as the scene in “Wayne’s World” when Mike Myers asks the wealthy guy at a stoplight if he has any Grey Poupon.
The heart of “Gimme Shelter” appears to be in the right place. If only it featured ambition to match. The irony is that the film’s ending offers the same type of Disney Channel wish-fulfillment that Hudgens seems to be running away from in the first place.