Vanessa Hudgens’ quest to prove to audiences that she’s all grown up takes a strange, dumpster-diving turn in Ron Krauss’ intentionally inspirational “Gimme Shelter,” about a girl’s quest to get off the streets.
Hudgens stars as Agnes “Apple” Bailey. Of course, being called Agnes makes her angry, and you wouldn’t like her when she’s angry. She’s a rolling snowball of rage as the film opens, hacking off about nine inches of her long but gnarly hair and setting out to find the person whose name is scrawled on a mysterious envelope. Her journey seems perilous from the start as her drugged-out mom (Rosario Dawson) literally stands in her way. A fistfight ensues before she hops into a waiting cab, from which she’s kicked out of for lack of payment and trying to steal said cab.
Who wouldn’t feel sorry for this girl?
Apple makes her way to the swanky estate of Tom (Brendan Fraser), who turns out to be the dad she never met. Tom’s new life as a Wall Street mogul, complete with two new kids and attractive French wife, Joanna (Stephanie Szostak), runs counter to Apple’s scavenger mentality, and it’s not long before Joanna demands that Apple leave as quickly as she entered. But Apple lays even more drama on the doorstep when she discovers that she’s pregnant. Tom goes into instant damage control mode, prompting Apple to “turn the page” on this unfortunate incident by getting an abortion. Joanna even offers to hold her hand and take her to the clinic. Once they get there, Joanna drops the handholding offer and leaves her at the clinic, where Apple decides she’s going to turn the page as a mother.
After a night on the streets and a frenetic encounter with a pimp that resembles the late Biggie Smalls, Apple ends up in the hospital, complete with a broken leg, a few facial scars and a bit of salvation in the form of Father Frank McCarthy (James Earl Jones). McCarthy refers her to a group home for pregnant teens where she meets girls just as messed up as she is and seem to be fine with it, because they’ve found a place where they fit in. It’s there that Apple’s journey takes on new and tragic turns that will either make you cheer her on or ask for a refund.
“Gimme Shelter” is based on Krauss’ time researching Kathy DiFiore and her Several Sources Shelters. The character of Apple is not based on a single person, but rather a few of the young girls housed at the shelter. Krauss initially wanted the project to be a documentary, and the film makes you think that he would’ve been better off going in that direction.
Hudgens gives a great performance as Apple, from the intense physical transformation consisting of adding 15 pounds to her lithe frame, to cutting off her hair and adding neck tattoos and a couple piercings. Even the most ardent “High School Musical” fan would do a double take, but the changes weren’t just cosmetic, with Hudgens channeling guarded, paranoid and almost feral qualities as she appears on screen eating meals like a desperate animal. Unfortunately, she’s not given much of a script to express the pain her character is supposedly experiencing or the arc she needs to win over the audience.
Ann Dowd does a good job as the mother and sometimes grandmother figure to the girls, but it’s a shame that more of her story wasn’t told, because it’s equally as compelling as Apple’s. DiFiore not only had to fight the elements in her own bout with homelessness and domestic abuse, but also the state of New Jersey to help out those in similar situations.
Rosario Dawson also steals scenes as Apples’ drug addicted mother, to the point that you wish there was some sort of epilogue to her story. Her part as the semi-functional crackhead nursing a broken heart is terrifying and heart-wrenching in nearly every scene that she’s in. She is the cautionary tale come to life, complete with teeth you won’t forget. Brendan Fraser does his best as Apple’s estranged father, but he’s underserved by the script as well. Fraser has too much range to be left almost emotionless in parts of the movie where he’s allowed to let loose. A guy with a heart big enough to donate his salary to the shelters deserved a few better scenes thrown his way.
“Gimme Shelter” plays more like a Lifetime movie or after school special, and although it has enough good performances to make you want to take it in, like the main character, it comes up a little short.