The difficult part about writing this review is that Gimme Shelter, a film written and directed by Ron Krauss, means really, really well. Apple Bailey (Vanessa Hudgens, who gained weight and de-glamorized in every way possible for the role) is the daughter of an addict, and has grown up in and out of the American foster system, and the “out” part isn’t significantly better than the “in.” As you’d imagine, she has an antisocial, unpolished edge, and she doesn’t trust anyone. What follows is a tale of redemption, as she seeks out her long-lost rich father (Brendan Fraser), gets pregnant, falls under the guidance of a kindly chaplain (James Earl Jones), and ends up in a women’s shelter where she discovers true sisterhood. As I said, it’s a story you desperately want to like, and to write bluntly about its resounding failure feels more than a little cruel.
As Apple well knows, honesty hurts, and the honest truth here is that Krauss manages to hit all the wrong notes in a film that feels clichéd, predictable, and very, very dull. Vanessa Hudgens has the bruised look of a kicked dog throughout most of the film, and physically she fits the role well. Her dialogue, though, falls flat, and it’s difficult to tell whether the fault lies with her or a script filled with platitudinous speeches. Personally, I’m leaning toward the script, because nobody else, from Fraser to Rosario Dawson (Apple’s mother) to Jones fares very well. And whatever inner light illuminated Hudgens in the High School Musical franchise, it’s been at least temporarily snuffed here.
The problem is that the film is all political and no art. You can tell Krauss cares deeply about the issue he’s portraying, and there’s nobility in that, but he’s created a morality play that hits you over the head with its lessons. I’d compare it to an after-school special, if other critics hadn’t already beat me to the punch; instead, I’ll just say it’s like watching an overly sincere adult trying to understand punk rock. Or something. Because the people on screen are not real characters; they exist to serve an agenda, and even though it’s an agenda many of us probably agree with, it still makes for some very stultifying art.
Are there high points? I suppose. Ann Dowd is interesting as the founder of the women’s shelter (Gimme Shelter is based on a true story, and Krauss himself spent a year at a homeless shelter for pregnant teens as part of his research), and Hudgens’ scenes with James Earl Jones have a certain spark, but as you can probably tell at this point, those are not recommendations for the greater film. The net effect here is one of being buttonholed by an earnest college student trying to hand you Greenpeace literature, and with a running time of 100 minutes, the enforced banality is too much to take. Krauss got the dirt and the bad teeth and the hopelessness right—and kudos to him for these moments of verisimilitude—but he left out the substance, and all the good intentions in the world can’t commute that death sentence.
Director: Ron Krauss
Writer: Ron Krauss
Starring: Vanessa Hudgens, Rosario Dawson, Brendan Fraser, James Earl Jones
Release Date: Jan. 24, 2014