I hate being told that a movie is good for me. Sounds too much like “eat your spinach.” I don’t like a hard sell or hearing that something is a “Christian” or “pro-life” or “inspiring” film. Just tell me what it’s about, and I’ll watch it and draw my own conclusions. And I’m picky, seeing only two or three first-run movies each year.
Gimme Shelter came to my attention through an email from a pro-life group. Not a hard sell, exactly, but a nudge. I’m glad I let myself be nudged into attending a screening. I was captivated by this story of a pregnant teen trying to find a safe place – both physical and emotional – for herself and her baby.
There are many ways this film could have gone wrong: too much sentimental preaching, too tidy an ending, too glamorous a heroine. Director/screenwriter Ronald Krauss and his crew avoided these pitfalls. Gimme Shelter is based on the true story of Kathy DiFiore, who has founded a number of shelters in New Jersey for pregnant and parenting teens. Krauss reportedly spent a year in such shelters as he wrote his screenplay. Rather than trying to make a saint of DiFiore or make a documentary about her shelter, Krauss listened to the young mothers. He has paid them a handsome tribute in the character of Apple Bailey, who in less than two hours of screen time becomes an unforgettable character.
Apple – the reason she abandons her birth name, Agnes, becomes clear late in the movie – is sixteen, a foster-care veteran, and the abused child of a drug-addicted prostitute, June. Born to teen parents who split up before her birth, Apple has known only violence and poverty with her mother, with intermittent unsatisfactory stays in foster care. She wants something better, and while she’s not quite sure what “better” means, she knows it means getting away from her mother. Unsmiling, defensive, and precariously streetwise, Apple sets off to find her father. Her appearance at his beautiful suburban home is like a bombshell to his picture-perfect wife and children. Even so, he welcomes the beaten-up, starving, tattooed-and-pierced teenager. The crisis heightens almost immediately when the wife recognizes that Apple is pregnant before the teen herself knows it.
Apple herself is overwhelmed and confused. Tom, her father, is a decent man who is torn between his shocked family and the daughter he has never seen before. He tells her in a compassionate tone that she is not ready for motherhood, and that she can put “this whole thing” behind her. “Like you put me behind you?” replies the haunted girl. He has no answer for her.
The word “abortion” is never mentioned. When Tom’s brittle and beautiful wife Joanna takes Apple to an unnamed clinic, the scene is underplayed to great effect, with no ominous music or villainous clinic workers. An ultrasound image of her child moves the unsentimental girl to decide to carry the baby to term. When she discovers that Joanna has abandoned her at the clinic, Apple goes on the run again. Hospitalized after being badly injured while fleeing from a predator, trusting no one, she reluctantly encounters the unlikely mentor who will bring her to the shelter that will give her and her baby a chance.
This has all the makings of a soap opera. The film escapes that trap. Characters that could have been reduced to mere types are instead rich and interesting. With only a couple of unfortunate preachy exceptions, the dialogue sounds natural. The music is one of the best things about the movie; with the wrong soundtrack the story could have descended into sappiness at several points. The cast could have overplayed the roles. They didn’t.
A danger of a big-name cast is that the viewer sees the actor on the screen, not the character. In Gimme Shelter, thanks to both the screenplay and the skill of the players, the characters prevail. Vanessa Hudgens nails it as Apple. Hudgens became a star in the hugely popular High School Musical, and it would be easy but false to say that she’s surprisingly good here. She’s wonderful, without any reference or comparison to HSM, period. As Tom, Brendan Fraser has a huge emotional range to cover, and he does the job without melodrama and with total believability. Rosario Dawson in a few brief scenes perfectly conveys the menace of the ravaged and ravaging June. James Earl Jones, reliable as always, portrays Father Frank McCarthy, who guides Apple to the shelter. Any Law and Order fan will recognize Ann Dowd, who had several remarkable guest roles during the series’s long run. In Gimme Shelter, she plays Kathy DiFiore, whose work inspired the film – and who, alas, is the one character who comes across as two-dimensional. One scene redeems this: June and Tom come to see Apple at the shelter at the same time, unexpectedly, and DiFiore has to manage the sudden convergence of the violent mother and well-meaning father who haven’t seen each other in sixteen years. Here, Dowd shines.
The conclusion of the movie is true to the realism of the story. There’s a measure of healing, but it’s not complete. There are reconciliations, but there are also unresolved relationships. There’s work to be done, yet there’s hope. And here, I finally had to bring out the tissues. Without trying to pull any strings, simply by telling me a good story, the movie got to me.
I’d recommend the movie for teens and up. Website : http://gimmeshelterthemovie.com/
Note: Moviegoers of a certain age will find the title Gimme Shelter annoying. The Rolling Stones used it for a documentary decades ago. The project comes by the title honestly, though, since DiFiore calls her book about her work Gimme Love, Gimme Hope, Gimme Shelter. She calls her Several Source Shelters “an Emergency Room for God’s most needy.”