Film Review: Gimme Shelter

Well-intentioned but weirdly uninvolving account of one very important aspect of our contemporary urban blight.

Based on a true story, Gimme Shelter is not the famed Maysles Brothers' Rolling Stones concert doc, but the tale of 16-year-old Apple (Vanessa Hudgens), who escapes from her drug-addicted prostitute mother June (Rosario Dawson) and sets off in search of the biological father she has never known. He is Tom Fitzpatrick (Brendan Fraser), a Wall Street stockbroker living with his wife Joanna (Stephanie Szostak) in a cushy world far from Apple's grim reality.

When Apple discovers that she is pregnant and decides to keep the baby, the already uncomfortable option of living with Tom is no longer available to her. She runs away again, but is given shelter by Father McCarthy (James Earl Jones, playing God again), who takes her to a home for expectant young mothers run by a benevolent woman (Ann Dowd) who was once herself in the same plight.

This is an important, pressing subject, the plight of disenfranchised teen moms, but while one applauds the intentions of the filmmakers, the static dramaturgy and flavorless direction of Ron Krauss render his feature film treatment of it less than compelling. Without any preparation, we are thrown into Apple's world and must take it on faith that her life with her disheveled mess of a mother is as bad as can be. Likewise, we never properly find out who the father of Apple's baby is, or the circumstances of her being impregnated. Once she leaves Tom's suburban heaven, we don’t see his or his wife's reaction to her absence, and although it's a relief to finally see Apple in a vividly bustling, sympathetic community of girls, Krauss never really gives them their own stories for us to respond and relate to. You watch Apple's plight and eventual rescue from the cracks of society with sympathy but little empathy.

Hudgens' performance is also partly to blame for the basic remove you feel from the film. Although she stays admirably in character, belligerent and sullen in the first scenes, then even more sullen as her disappointment with Tom sets in, the performance becomes monotonous. Apart from wanting safe harbor, we never find out what makes this girl tick: She professes no visible interest in music, other people or indeed any kind of communication at all. You yearn to see something more of her besides her drab victimization; she doesn't even crack a smile until the final scene.

"Drab" is the last word one could use regarding Dawson, who goes all-out to outdo the spectacularly dissolute Mo'Nique in Precious and Jennifer Hudson in The Inevitable Defeat of Mister & Pete as Bad Ghetto Mother of the Year. An eternal menace to Apple, ravaged and thin as a rake, she's pretty horrifying—a she-devil incarnate—and Krauss shamelessly uses her monstrousness to feverishly up the drama here. At one point, he even revives that razor-blade-in-the-mouth gambit Pam Grier used so terrifyingly in Fort Apache the Bronx.

Fraser, who is no longer the perfect living embodiment of Michelangelo's David he was circa School Ties, gives a doggedly earnest performance that unfortunately cannot disguise the thinness of Krauss' script. (Even his reunion after a lifetime with June is given frustratingly short shrift, and it's hard to believe the two were ever together, if even for one night.) Szostak does bring a soupçon of complexity as the bitchy—and rather understandably so, given the circumstances—wife who finds her creamy existence suddenly turned topsy-turvy by her "perfect" husband's past.