Here’s what you need to know about Gimme Shelter going in: The film’s writer/director/producer, Ronald Krauss, once worked on the TV show “Chicken Soup for the Soul” which aired on PAX TV back in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
From this little piece of the man’s résumé, you can perhaps glean just how corny, how artificially heart-wrenching, and how bland Gimme Shelter is. Although based on a true story, it’s a film that plays like a particularly slick and somewhat natural version of a plainly average PAX TV after-school special about teen pregnancy, complete with all the clichéd accoutrements of the form: the too-evil wicked mother, the too-benevolent care provider, the too-dramatic climaxes; our heroine goes into labor, for example, in the middle of a Denny’s. Many of the tsk-tsk-baiting topical social problems are laid bare without shame: Teen pregnancy, drug addiction, homelessness, shelter living. But nothing so edgy as to alienate a gentle audience of white 70-year-olds; all of the film’s vice fits easily under the PG-13 umbrella.
Vanessa Hudgens, giving a fierce performance, plays the real-life Agnes “Apple” Bailey, a 16-year-old who was raised in poverty by her horrible drug addict mother (Rosario Dawson, sporting a set of bright yellow teeth). She eventually runs away to find an estranged rich relative (Brendan Fraser), hoping for help, but constantly spews hateful epithets at him. Through a series of arguments (Fraser’s wife, played by Stephanie Szostak, wants Apple to have an abortion), he takes Apple to a shelter where she falls in with the benevolent Kathy (Ann Dowd) a woman who converted her own home into a halfway house years before, and now plays host to a bevvy of rainbow-coalition-ready archetypal pregnant teens. Apple is also fostered by the kindly Fr. McCarthy (James Earl Jones), who openly prays for her.
You can see Gimme Shelter really straining for a sort of casual naturalism. The hand-held camerawork, muted photography, and occasional glimpses of filthy motel rooms allow the film to feel perhaps more real than the material would suggest. Hudgens is also really trying to squeeze honesty from this role, biting into her Joisey accent and tough-girl mannerisms with more enthusiasm than a lesser actress would have attempted.
But any honesty or naturalism Gimme Shelter may have actually achieved is being constantly undercut by its own overwhelming corny chintziness and weepy playful-girl montages. Just when you think something will be touching, the film will whip out a moment of extreme ridiculousness that’s hard to ignore. For instance: When Apple and her pregnant peers are taken to a church to ask for donations, she is confronted by her ghoulish mother, who, after insulting her, folds a straight razor out from under her tongue and cuts Apple across the cheek. This is the kind of moment that belongs in a James Bond movie. In general, Gimme Shelter‘s tone is one of bland hand-wringing worry, and peaceful TV-ready healing; just trust in the shrink/priest/social program, and all will be well. If the story had pushed in the right direction, and had made Apple’s salvation the primary concern, this would out-and-out Christian entertainment.
A curious detail: Whereas Hollywood tends to re-purpose history by making real-life non-white people into onscreen white characters (think of something like The Impossible, which turned a Latino family into Anglos, or 21 which converted Asians into Caucasians), Gimme Shelter has taken the white Apple Bailey (we see her in an over-credits photo montage) and casts the half-Filipino and one-quarter Indian Hudgens in the role. The kindly white priest is now played by a black man. Even Apple’s baby is now black. Casting is the director’s prerogative, but this casting strikes me as a little unusual.
This is the kind of movie that Precious was trying to outdo. It’s the kind of tut-tutting ripped-from-the-headlines moralizing tale that one finds in “Reader’s Digest.” It’s the kind of film your teachers show you in Jr. High School. It’s safe for church meetings. Maybe that’s my biggest complaint: For a dark story that flirts with real-life crime and pain, Gimme Shelter is embarrassingly safe.
Witney Seibold is a featured contributor on the CraveOnline Film Channel, and co-host of The B-Movies Podcast. You can read his weekly articles Trolling, Free Film School and The Series Project, and follow him on “Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.