Earnest but ham-fisted, Ron Krauss’ tale of a pregnant, desperate teen who finds true family feeling in the group home that takes her in is like an Afterschool Special intended for the Eternal Word Network. Vanessa Hudgens, of “High School Musical” fame, gives a committed performance in the lead role, but “Gimme Shelter” is so anxious to hit all the emotional bases that in the end most everything in it feels false.
We first see Agnes “Apple” Bailey (Hudgens) as she flees the apartment of her violent, drug-addict mother June (Rosario Dawson) and makes her way to the father she’s never known—Tom Fitzpatrick (Brendan Fraser), a wealthy Wall Street broker (who’s apparently living in the same house as when he was the college boy who got June pregnant, since it’s a treasured letter from long ago that gives her his address). Though she’s surly and abrasive, Tom takes her in, much to the distress of his wife Joanna (Stephanie Szostak), who fears for the welfare of their two young children around the girl.
Tom and Joanna’s concerns increase when Apple’s indisposition in the mornings reveals that she’s pregnant. Not much is made of the subject of paternity (is the father one of June’s abusive partners?), but the Fitzpatricks are of the opinion that Apple is not ready to be a mother, and so try to persuade her to have an abortion. She rebels against that notion at the last moment, however, and flees to the streets, winding up in a hospital where kindly Father McCarthy (James Earl Jones) takes on her case and refers her to Kathy DiFiore (Ann Dowd), who runs a shelter for unwed mothers and mothers-to-be. Apple initially gravitates to rebellious bad girl Cassandra (Emily Meade), but eventually warms to the sense of camaraderie at the place and gives birth to the child, which Tom and Joanna happily offer a home—along with its mother, of course.
There’s obviously a strong pro-life message at work here, of course, which should endear the picture to certain religious groups. And its portrait of a disadvantaged young woman who overcomes the obstacles in the way of her success as a person—mostly notably a horrendous mother—aims for the same sense of gritty realism that made “Precious” so powerful. But Krauss’ film, unlike Daniels’, comes across as mawkish and grossly manipulative rather than truthful. It also has serious plot holes. Apart from the issues of the paternity of Apple’s child and the implausibility of Tom’s living in the old family mansion, it makes a point of telling us that Apple can’t legally stay with Kathy without June’s permission but never explains how she gets it and then abruptly jettisons the character of Cassandra, who’s never heard of again. The ending is also curious, since it suggests that Apple intends to stay permanently at the shelter—which, given the fact that she has a perfectly good (indeed, plush) home to go to now, seems a total waste of the little facility’s space. The ending will, however, make weepy viewers feel good, which is probably all Krauss was concerned with.
What the film does have going for it is the performance of Hudgens, who has certainly transformed herself to look the part of a bedraggled teen, even if her actual delivery of lines is sometimes stiff. And Dawson is ferocious as her selfish mother, though the effort probably won’t win her the Oscar as Mo’Nique’s similar turn did. Fraser, in buttoned-down mode, mostly does nerd shtick, and Jones goes a generically avuncular route, but both add a touch of class to the proceedings. Everyone else does decent but unremarkable work, and technically the picture is about what you’d expect of a modestly budgeted indie.
In the end, though, despite all its obvious good intentions, “Gimme Shelter” comes across more as a high-minded lecture than a compelling drama.