I’ve asked this before, but why do almost all movies with overt Christian themes have to be so bad? While it’s not the evangelical schlock-fest of Soul Surfer or Seven Days in Utopia, Gimme Shelter — Ron Krauss’ story of one young woman’s experience with Kathy DiFiore’s shelter for pregnant teenagers — is just as cloying and didactic.
The girl in question, Agnes “Apple” Bailey (Vanessa Hudgens), is supposedly based on a real teenager. While I’m sure elements of her story are true of many young women, and even that all may be true of a single one, the presentation is dramatized in a way real life just isn’t. Her mother (Rosario Dawson) is a drug addict and prostitute in Philadelphia, and foster care is an endless sequence of abusive homes. Apple escapes to find her biological father (Brendan Fraser), a wealthy Wall Street type living at the same posh suburban New Jersey address he’d written on a letter to Apple before she was born.
It becomes apparent that Apple is pregnant on top of everything else in her life. Her father and his wife insist that she have an abortion, but she runs away. With the help of a kindly chaplain (James Earl Jones), she ends up in the shelter run by DiFiore (Ann Dowd), where she finds the care, protection, and family that she needs.
Gimme Shelter has been tagged as an anti-abortion story, but it feels a touch more complicated than that. I’m certain that Krauss wrote and directed it out of admiration for DiFiore’s work, that DiFiore herself is opposed to abortion, and that the intent is to cheer for those who provide alternatives to abortion. It’s no coincidence that it was released in tandem with the fortieth anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision. But key to the whole story is that the shelter provides its services to teenagers who have chosen to bring their pregnancies to term, and for all the smokescreen of babies and motherhood, that choice is what the fight is really all about.
To the extent that the movie focuses on the positive possible outcomes of choosing not to have an abortion and ignores the fact of the choice, it misses the entire point of the debate. Even a “Mommie Dearest” pro-choicer like me wishes nothing but good towards anyone in such difficult circumstances and can admire the good that DiFiore’s shelter does for them, and it seems to me that if the film makes any effective case it’s for more and better public social services both before and after Apple becomes pregnant. But if this is meant to make a case against abortion, it fails to address the actual issue.
Beyond the politics, though, the story is just a mess. Hudgens throws herself into Apple’s character across her entire arc, and her performance is a good step along the path of shedding her High School Musical past. But the dialogue is awkward and stilted, like a bad after-school special. The exposition is ham-fisted; at one point the girls at the shelter break into DiFiore’s office and read their own files, clearly in order to list off what horrible backgrounds DiFiore has to deal with. It’s a blatant rip-off of the similar scene from Girl, Interrupted and other such films, but it can’t achieve the same goal of advancing characterization because there’s no characterization to be found.
Even Apple’s character is barely more than a sketch. We get a litany of woes to rival Precious, but see none of the actual suffering that would make it more than just words. We get a list of issues Apple must overcome — anger and mistrust chief among them — and by the end she’s pretty and feminized to imply that she’s overcome them, but we get no actual turning-point scene. And of course she is richly rewarded for her choice, albeit in a way few actual teenagers in her position could ever be.
Overall, it’s an empty tale designed to play to the warm, fuzzy sentiments of an audience that’s committed to not thinking very hard about any of it. But then, what do you expect from the guy who tried to bring Chicken Soup for the Soul to television?
Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: pass.