By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — A writ-large reminder that good intentions alone are rarely enough is provided by Gimme Shelter (not to be confused with the 1970 Rolling Stones documentary), a mediocre drama about survival that’s obliquely based on a true story.
Vanessa Hudgens plays Agnes “Apple” Bailey, street-wise, hard-edged, and world-weary at age 16, no stranger to rejection and an unhappy veteran of a lengthy succession of foster homes as she has been bounced around by indifferent social services.
She flees her verbally and physically abusive mother, June, played by Rosario Dawson, an unstable, drug-addicted prostitute who needs and craves the welfare check that Apple’s presence justifies and who seems okay about her daughter traveling the same rocky path that she has.
Tough as nails but heart-wrenchingly desperate, the downtrodden runaway turns up on the suburban doorstep of her biological father, Tom Fitzpatrick, a Wall Street broker played by Brendan Fraser, whom she has never met and who disappeared at age 19 when Apple’s mother got pregnant.
He now has a family of his own, wife Joanna and two kids, and Apple asks to stay with them.
Joanna, played by Stephanie Szostak, clearly resents both the intrusion into the family cocoon by this objectionable outsider, to say nothing of this reminder of her husband’s past.
So although she tries to be helpful, her hostility is just below the surface: there will be no helpful mother substitute under this roof.
Then Apple discovers that she is pregnant by a boy who wants nothing to do with her.
She wants to keep the baby, which her father thinks is a bad if not self-destructive decision, and give the child a chance at a life better than the one she has struggled through.
So she runs away yet again.
Following a car accident and a hospital stay, she ends up at a shelter for pregnant and homeless young women run by a woman played by Ann Dowd (whose real-life character is Kathy DiFiore, the guiding spirit behind Several Sources Shelters, was the film’s inspiration) and owned by another real-life character, a local priest named Frank McCarthy, played by James Earl Jones, a fresh environment for Apple that seems to be offering her help, salvation, and a new kind of family.
Writer-producer-director Ron Krauss (Rave, Alien Hunter, Amexica) seems to have a passion for the subject but not the skills to tell his story in a way that engages without seeming preachy and obvious. His cast is game but no one quite transcends the material.
Gimme Shelter carries an inspirational message about at-risk teens and sisterhood and female empowerment, but it’s dramatically awkward and flat, undercutting and undermining the uplift and often registering as if it would be more appropriate as a television “Afterschool Special” or a seminar discussion starter than a theatrical feature.
Hudgens continues her transition from the Disney Channel good-girl-persona phase of her career to that of a serious and mature actress, but –- at this point, anyway –- she appears to be in over her head. She overplays the street-tough stuff with a succession of wooden, one-note line readings that fail to bring her character anywhere near three-dimensional life or even within a stone’s throw of the convincing transformation that is the film’s goal.
This approach might pass muster for Hudgens’ adoring and forgiving fans, but not for viewers demanding a respectable level of verisimilitude.
And she’s not helped much by playing scenes opposite the shrill Dawson, who overacts to a surprising and embarrassing degree.
Dowd and Jones lend the film a slight measure of gravitas, but not enough to make it a gimme.
So we’ll survive 2 stars out of 4 for Gimme Shelter, a strained and ungainly drama that fails to shelter us from its extensive limitations.