There’s one great scene in Gimme Shelter: Teenage Apple (Vanessa Hudgens) is pregnant, and, through a series of desperate circumstances, has ended up in the hospital where her social worker, a stranger, tries to reunite her with her mother, June (Rosario Dawson). Apple is visibly uncomfortable with her mother, but the well-meaning caseworker railroads her into agreeing to have a conversation alone.
What follows is a fierce, volatile monologue from June, who threatens and cajoles her daughter by turns, cursing or crying or openly pleading. Every time Apple tries to turn her wheelchair to leave, June stops her, appearing in the frame like the villain of a horror movie from which there’s no escape, assuring her daughter she’s the most important thing to ever happen to her just moments after asking her to come home so they can get state revenue for the baby. By the time June runs out of words, she’s in tears; Apple, though staunchly silent, has been weeping for a while.
The scene viscerally encapsulates Apple’s desperation to get out and away from under her mother for good. Despite the social worker waiting outside the door, by the time Apple smacks the button to call an attendant, it reads like a narrow escape from certain doom. Secondly, it attempts to tackle the difficult situation Apple’s in—pregnant, underage, homeless, without a suitable parent to take legal responsibility—without offering easy answers. By choosing to keep the baby, she’s narrowed her options for housing and complicated her long-term situation, and June makes clear that Apple stands to inherit all her own mistakes while making it obvious why Apple can never come home. It isn’t a long scene, but thanks to Dawson, it’s a pivotal moment in the film.
Unfortunately, the rest of the movie doesn’t live up to this linchpin. Written and directed by Ron Krauss, Gimme Shelter is a story partially drawn from the accounts of teenage mothers at a shelter run by New Jersey-based humanitarian Kathy DiFiore (who herself is fictionalized in the film) and moves between scenes of crushing hardship and beatific feel-goods to limited effect. Its beats occasionally hit home—but often land more like anvils.
Apple opens the movie by running away from her drug-using mother to the New Jersey manse of her biological father, Tom (Brendan Fraser), a bastion of the upper middle class, who reluctantly takes her in until the discovery of her pregnancy prompts a showdown. Fraser is suitably awkward, though Stephanie Szostak makes this segment sing as Joanna, his falsely polite, patronizing wife. She manages to be oppressive enough to single-handedly explain why Apple panics at the women’s clinic and runs back onto the streets, where she narrowly avoids a potential kidnapping by crashing Tom’s car and being taken to the hospital. Here, Apple’s fortune takes a turn, as Father McCarthy (James Earl Jones) sets her up at Kathy’s shelter, where she must learn to trust her fellow girls and break free of her mother’s influence.
Unfortunately, Apple isn’t as fully realized as the film needs her to be, so Gimme Shelter feels disjointed, a series of scenes rather than the journey of a character. Vanessa Hudgens does her level best with the role, but it would take a better actress than she is to handle material that moves so perfunctorily through its paces. Apple’s history of abuse is reduced to a screamed list of hardships as she demands of Father McCarthy where God was while they were happening, which would be a perfectly valid demand if it was treated with any weight by the text. Instead, it’s included for the sake of momentary anger, a stepping stone to reconciliation. Even where the material is at its most gripping (there are a tense few minutes of Apple living on the streets and looking for help that never comes), it feels manipulative, overlaid with Lana Del Rey music to make sure you know how sad it is before she prays for help and Father McCarthy comes along.
And once she’s got a safe place to stay, much of the tension in the film’s story vanishes. It’s a relief to see a shelter as a source of friendship and support rather than domestic friction, and the residents provide some sweet background noise, but dramatically speaking, it’s treading water. Feints are made at delving into the compromises shelter residents make, as when one girl complains about having to go out to church to ask for donations, but it’s an interesting reservation that’s never examined or even revisited. It’s an island unto itself, one of several disconnects that keeps the story from settling into a cohesive whole. Though in terms of missed opportunities, perhaps the most interesting is Tom’s increasing presence in Apple’s life. June’s anger at losing her daughter spirals believably outward into desperation and eventually violence, but Tom’s attempts to reconcile with Apple are framed as healthy despite his iffy actions, and her facile shift from jeans and black hoodies to pastel dresses and cardigans just in time to be welcomed back to the fold begs for analysis that has no place in the movie’s search for a feel-good ending.
Though obviously sincere in its intent, with the exception of that single wrenching showstopper, neither its construction nor execution ever rises above the ordinary. And in the end, Gimme Shelter tries its hardest with a story it never quite knows how to tell.
2014 Films: The Year’s Most Likely