Gimme Shelter: Film Review

Intended dramatic grit lands more squarely in the realm of after-school special.

Vanessa Hudgens toplines a based-on-true-events drama, portraying an abused teen who finds support in a shelter for pregnant girls.

Continuing her postgraduate reinvention after High School Musical, Vanessa Hudgens tackles the role of a troubled teen in Gimme Shelter, a drama whose aimed-for intensity misses the mark at nearly every turn. It takes chutzpah to use a title that’s indelibly linked to great artists, and the nod to The Rolling Stones and documentarians Albert and David Maysles hardly serves writer-director Ronald Krauss well. However “based on inspiring events” his feature may be, and although a few of its sequences attain a certain streetwise naturalism, the story unfolds in large part through awkward contrivance. Opening nationwide in a medium-sized run of about 350 theaters, the picture will entice younger viewers who have followed Hudgens from her squeaky-clean Disney years.

For all its supposed grit, Hudgens' new film is essentially wholesome, its message one of faith, hope and charity. As Agnes “Apple” Bailey, Hudgens is a 16-year-old who’s clearly hurting beneath her Joan Jett-in-the-rough toughness. Having spent much of her life in foster homes, she’s determined to get out of “the system,” but an attempted reunion with her sadistic druggie mother (Rosario Dawson) proves disastrous. In suburban New Jersey, she seeks out the father she never knew. That doesn’t go so well either.

VIDEO: 'Gimme Shelter' Trailer: Vanessa Hudgens Transforms Herself Into Homeless Teen

He’s an affluent Wall Street exec, played by an especially lost-looking Brendan Fraser in some of the film’s clunkiest scenes. His flinty wife (Stephanie Szostak) quickly schedules an abortion for Agnes after she figures out that their unwelcome guest is pregnant. Clutching ultrasound images of her fetus, Agnes flees back into the mean streets. At the hospital where she ends up after a car accident, the kindly chaplain (a low-key James Earl Jones) takes an interest and gets her to a private Christian shelter for pregnant teens.

As the woman who founded and runs the shelter, Ann Dowd is all no-nonsense compassion. She’s also playing a real-life person, Kathy DiFiore, and ultimately the film is about her work, although Krauss’ screenplay puts her on the sidelines while Hudgens’ composite character takes center stage.

In its vanity-free physicality, Hudgens’ performance is committed -- the slouch, the boorish table manners, the thief’s reflexes. But in early scenes especially, she overplays her character’s two emotional notes, sullenness and rage. The insistent score, which includes contributions from Paul Haslinger, Assaf Rinde and Gustavo Santaolalla, is likewise overdone in an attempt to up the dramatic ante. The soundtrack's selection of songs is as on-the-nose as much of the dialogue.

The writing doesn’t help any of the actors dig in especially deep, although Dawson gives it her all as a monster of a mother. A scene between her and a mostly silent, crying Hudgens, when Agnes’ mother pleads her pathetic case, is by far the most emotionally involving moment in the film.

Krauss (Alien Hunter) lets the religious angle and pro-life message speak for themselves without undue emphasis. Instead, he spotlights the sense of sisterhood and support among the shelter’s residents -- and then hammers it home in a final, theme-summarizing monologue. But the camaraderie of the young women is among the more convincing elements in a story that tries too hard and frequently falls flat on its path to heartwarming reassurance.

Opens: Friday, Jan. 24 (Roadside Attractions)

Production: Day 28 Films

Cast: Vanessa Hudgens, James Earl Jones, Rosario Dawson, Stephanie Szostak, Emily Meade, Ann Dowd, Brendan Fraser

Writer-director: Ronald Krauss

Producers: Ronald Krauss, Jeff Rice

Executive producers: Paul Hellerman, Scott Steindorff

Director of photography: Alain Marcoen

Production designer: William Ladd Skinner

Music: Paul Haslinger, Assaf Rinde, Gustavo Santaolalla

Costume designer: Ciera Wells

Editors: Mark Sult, Marie-Helene Dozo

PG-13; 101 min.