Vanessa Hudgens shines in bleak 'Gimme Shelter'
In the tradition of "All is Lost," "Gravity" and "Lone Survivor," Ron Krauss' mirthless soap operatic "Gimme Shelter" presents a tale of personal survival, the story of a desperate girl cast adrift alone in a world threatened not by grave dangers and imminent death, but by indifference and intolerance.
This loosely fact-based drama paints a bleak picture of American society as a broken civilization on the verge of losing its humanity. Government programs created to help and protect the weak and vulnerable do neither. Religion offers little more than rhetoric and references.
In this social landscape unencumbered by empathy or compassion, the well-off feel no obligation to help the less fortunate.
"Gimme Shelter" clearly has aspirations to be the next "Precious," but its fuzzy narrative, spoon-fed morals, intrusively mopey songs and complete omission of realistic street language give it the perfect credentials to be a Lifetime cable movie.
Consider "Gimme Shelter" as the anti-"The Blind Side."
Instead of wealthy, upper-middle class family members opening their doors and hearts to a struggling outcast, the well-off Fitzpatricks offer tepid assistance, then totally abandon 16-year-old street kid Agnes "Apple" Bailey.
Former Disney star Vanessa Hudgens stars as Apple, and she shatters any illusions of vanity in the opening scene. She frantically chops off chunks of her black hair (reportedly her own) with scissors while repeating to herself, "I am not afraid. You can do this. I am not afraid."
She wears metal piercings in her nose, earlobes and lips, a blazing tattoo on her neck and dark, sunken eyes on a battered face.
Hudgens the teen starlet is hardly recognizable, as is Hollywood hottie Rosario Dawson as her mother, June, a hollow human being with her garish features distorted by drugs and a harsh existence.
Apple wants to break free from the land of lost and forgotten souls. She doesn't get far. A cabdriver taking her to New Jersey abandons her on the street when she can't cough up taxi fare.
She walks to the posh mansion of the Fitzgeralds, Tom and Joanna (Brendan Fraser and Stephanie Szostak), where the cops instantly arrest her for trespassing.
Two surprises hit us: Tom, a Big Apple financier, is actually her biological father. The smaller Apple is pregnant.
Fraser, paunchy with his hair pulled back like a Wall Street Dracula, plays Tom as a weak deadbeat, a vaguely nice guy driven by guilt.
Joanna, a bluntly nasty woman driven by selfishness, shouts "I want her out!" before pressuring Apple to go with her to an abortion clinic. There she abandons Apple, hoping she'll take the hint.
"Gimme Shelter" becomes a literal title when a priest named Frank McCarthy (James Earl Jones, making elderly age and the clergy look awesomely respectable) sends Apple to a shelter for pregnant teens. It's a relative Taj Mahal run by Kathy DiFiore (Ann Dowd), once an abandoned pregnant teen herself.
Both the DiFiore and McCarthy characters are based on actual people. Not so Apple, who's apparently an aggregate character created from parts of many teen girls passing through DiFiore's shelter.
That doesn't matter here because Hudgens' committed, passionate performance shines above everything else in writer/director Krauss' strained drama that addresses important issues such as pregnancy, abortion, self-esteem and love without actually delving into them.
After a long stretch as a Debbie Downer tale, "Gimme Shelter" takes a screeching sharp turn into an unearned, upbeat finale waxing poetic about home and family.
In actuality, the movie's thematic residue is alarmingly depressing, for it contends that the only people capable of true empathy are those who've shared identical experiences.
In short, empathy can only be achieved by literally walking in someone else's shelter-supplied shoes.
That makes this movie truly a tragedy.
"Gimme Shelter"★ ★
Starring: Vanessa Hudgens, Brendan Fraser, James Earl Jones, Rosario Dawson, Ann Dowd, Stephanie Szostak
Directed by: Ron Krauss
Other: A Roadside Attractions release. Rated PG-13 for language, drug use, violence. 100 minutes