If a Lifetime movie had a one-night stand with a Hallmark Hall of Fame presentation, and their Afterschool Special love child were weaned on a steady diet of “Teen Mom,” “Davey and Goliath” and “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire,” it might grow up to look a little something like “Gimme Shelter.”
On the surface, it’s the story of 16-year-old pregnant runaway Agnes (Vanessa Hudgens), who prefers to be called Apple. But writer-director Ron Krauss mostly uses Agnes/Apple as a way to celebrate the work of real-life humanitarian Kathy DiFiore (Ann Dowd), who was homeless before getting back on her feet and founding a shelter for girls who want to keep their babies. “Gimme Shelter” is even populated with actual shelter mothers which, to be as kind as possible, is glaringly obvious from their performances.
When we first meet Agnes/Apple, she’s chopping off her hair in the bathroom of a unit of one of those rundown buildings that may be a skeevy motel, may be a sketchy apartment complex, but is most certainly nowhere you’d want to spend a couple of minutes, let alone the night.
She quietly reassures herself that she’s not scared before embarking on one of what we’ll come to learn have been several attempts to escape the grasp of her junkie mother, June (Rosario Dawson), who only wants her around for the welfare money.
After a violent confrontation in the lobby, during which June throws in a “Mommy loves you” or two in between calling her a whore and a slut, Agnes/Apple makes her way to a lush estate, where she crawls under the gate and is promptly arrested. She’s so unkempt that, with her prominent neck tattoo, multiple piercings and the new homemade ’do that makes her resemble a younger version of “Entourage’s” Vinnie Chase, the police are surprised to find out she’s a girl.
But Agnes/Apple isn’t there to rob the place. She’s just looking for Tom (Brendan Fraser), the Wall Street bigwig dad she never knew, and “a place to stay for a lil bit.” Street tough and practically feral, Agnes/Apple doesn’t exactly fit in with their white-bread world. When she learns she’s pregnant, Tom urges her to “turn the page” on that part of her life. His icy wife, Joanna (Stephanie Szostak), schedules an abortion for the next day. And when Agnes/Apple protests that she’s not sure that’s what she wants, Joanna sneers, “It’s not about what you want, honey.”
It’s all so cartoonishly dastardly, it’s a wonder Joanna doesn’t just skip the clinic altogether in favor of twirling her mustache and tying Agnes/Apple to some railroad tracks to let an oncoming train take care of things.
Agnes/Apple runs away yet again and is shown breaking into cars for warmth and eating out of dumpsters before ending up handcuffed to a hospital bed. There, she meets a kindly chaplain (James Earl Jones), whom she initially rebuffs. “God don’t care about me. Don’t waste your time,” she says, echoing a scene from pretty much every faith-based movie ever.
Before long, though, Agnes/Apple moves into DiFiore’s shelter, where the movie tries mightily to establish a bond among her and the other residents. Little of it, though, feels real. The scene in which the girls break into DiFiore’s office to read their case files mostly exists so the characters can throw out a laundry list of horrors: prostitution, drug use, rape, personality disorders, chronic depression and mental and physical abuse. Agnes/Apple herself was abused and molested, taken to a mental hospital when she was 8 and had lived in 10 foster homes by the age of 12. She’s even shown being attacked by her mother with a razor blade in a church.
Filmed in 2011, “Gimme Shelter” was Hudgens’ first onscreen attempt at blowing up her “High School Musical” image, something she accomplished to greater effect in last year’s “Spring Breakers.” You can tell she wanted it to be great, serious work, and she uglies herself up to be taken seriously. But as the marble-mouthed Agnes/Apple, she spends too much of the movie wrestling with an accent that refuses to be tamed.
Her characters’ parents were teenagers who barely knew each other when she was conceived, which makes Fraser about a decade too old for the part.
And the ending is not only insulting but borderline reckless.
“Gimme Shelter” resembles the sort of thing that’s usually screened at churches before passing a collection plate. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It just feels out of place on the big screen.
And it certainly means well, virtually to a fault.
Because the road to movie hell is often paved with good intentions.