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Ebiri: Whatever Its Politics, Gimme Shelter Fails on Multiple Levels

If nothing else, Gimme Shelter should help us lefties understand what it must be like for conservatives when they watch some of the more presumptuously back-patting liberal films out there. An indie drama starring Vanessa Hudgens as a troubled pregnant teen who goes through the tortures of the damned, this is the kind of film that outfits a potentially compelling story with politically convenient signposts — not understanding that sometimes, getting out of the way of a good tale is the best kind of polemical strategy. Would I feel differently if the film merely re-confirmed my own beliefs? Perhaps. But whatever its politics, Gimme Shelter fails on multiple levels.

When we first meet Apple, née Agnes (Hudgens), she’s getting ready to walk out on her strung-out mess of a mom, June (a near-unrecognizable Rosario Dawson). Leaving her crap urban wasteland neighborhood behind, she makes her way to a posh New Jersey address and tries to reconnect with her father, Tom (Brendan Fraser). He hasn’t seen Apple in years — we don’t find out just how long it’s been until later in the film — and with his comfortable life and family, doesn’t quite know what to do with this pissed-off inner-city hellion. It doesn’t help that his wife (Stephanie Szostak) sees Apple as something of a threat. Then, they realize that the girl is pregnant. (Movie Code: If a character vomits, they’re pregnant; if they cough, they’re dying.)

And here’s where it starts to get dicey. Rather cruelly, Tom and his wife try to force Apple into having an abortion, against her will. This would be a politically loaded plot point no matter what, but director Ron Krauss does his movie no favors by presenting it in the clunkiest way possible. Tom and his wife are presented as domineering and callous; the wife accompanies Apple to the clinic, but then bails on her in the waiting room, while a nurse harshly barks orders at the young girl. Clearly, these are all terrible people. (Of course, liberal movies often indulge in this kind of deck-stacking as well, and sometimes they’re even rewarded with Oscars.)

Anyway, Apple eventually flees, and, after winding up in a horrific car accident, finds herself in the comforting arms of Father McCarthy (James Earl Jones, delivering even an offhand comment about going to the bathroom in that booming voice of his). He in turn enters her into a shelter for troubled young moms run by the firm but kind Kathy (Ann Dowd), a dedicated social worker with photos of herself meeting Mother Teresa and Ronald Reagan on the walls. The girls there are a bunch of half-reformed hell-raisers, not above going against the rules now and then: In the film’s most touching scene, they break into an office at night and read their files out loud — testaments to their histories of abuse, addiction, and rejection.

Aside from a couple of such moments, the shelter scenes lack impact — which is a shame, because Apple’s entry and gradual acceptance in this place should be the heart and soul of the film. There’s a story here, but Gimme Shelter misses it in its search for something more sensational: It’s more interested in the circumstances that got Apple here than it is in the place itself. (It is, of course, often harder to depict complicated human interactions than car wrecks and shouting matches and bogeyman abortion clinic nurses.) None of the other young moms at the shelter come across as fully imagined characters, and so, Apple is left responding to postures rather than people. This is all perhaps ironic, because the film is based on real events, and it was reportedly filmed at the actual shelter, with a cast made up partly of young moms at the shelter.

But authenticity of setting can’t guarantee authenticity of effect. It doesn’t help that Hudgens appears to have limited range. She’s good at being agitated and pissed off, but, interestingly, she can’t quite go soft; her anger feels real, but her tears do not. Rosario Dawson seems to be the only person in the cast who understands this would all work best as a crazy melodrama. Unfortunately, this makes her a loner; her scenery-chewing performance stands out, and not in a good way. Brendan Fraser, meanwhile, shows some surprising depth. Late in the film, he runs into Dawson’s character for the first time in years. The expression on his face as he realizes what’s happened to this woman that he once loved, however briefly, is touching — in part because you feel for the actor, who unfortunately has to offer this brief glimmer of his talents in what will surely be one of his more forgettable films.

Photo: Roadside Attractions