“Gimme Shelter” opens Friday at Point Cinemas. PG-13, 1;40, two stars out of four.
It barely looks human, this feral creature in a gray hoodle. Look closer, the face tattooed, bruised and scratched, eyes red-rimmed, short, dirty hair falling everywhere, and you can tell it’s human, but can’t tell whether it’s male or female.
And then comes the biggest shock of all for an audience watching “Gimme Shelter” — not only is it a girl, but it’s a girl played by teen queen Vanessa Hudgens of “High School Musical” fame.
Of course, scuffing up your image is a familiar way for a child actress to try and transition into adult roles (and Hudgens already did so, albeit in a different direction, in last year’s “Spring Breakers.”) But she is genuinely bold and committed to playing Agnes “Apple” Bailey in this story of a real-life homeless teen.
She and several other fine actors bring authenticity to a movie that desperately needs it. Writer-director Ron Krauss’ film is a stiff and preachy drama where the good guys and bad guys are clearly marked. “Gimme Shelter” may have been targeted at the cultural conservative audience that eats up Kirk Cameron movies, but is already a cut above those, and could have been a lot better with a few more passes at the screenplay.
Having lived a lifetime of abuse and neglect in foster homes, and under the care of her mentally-ill mother (a frightening Rosario Dawson), Apple is caught by police skulking outside the estate of wealthy businessman Tom Fitzpatrick (Brendan Fraser). Tom, it turns out, is Apple’s biological father, but has never met her. Out of guilt or obligation, he tries to give her money to go away, then agrees to let her stay with his family for a few days.
There’s another complication — Apple is pregnant. Tom, in a bizarre scene where he speaks like a Bond villain, urges her to “turn the page” and get an abortion. (It’s understood that, 16 years ago, Tom wanted Apple to be aborted, but her mother disagreed).
Apple instead flees, first to a kindly hospital chaplain (James Earl Jones) and then to Kathy DiFiore, the no-nonsense owner (Ann Dowd) of a group home for homeless teen mothers. Kathy is presented as a straight-up saint — she has photos of herself on the wall of herself with Mother Teresa and Ronald Reagan! The home is populated by other teen moms and their babies, all happy and nurturing to Apple, and under their influence she magically transforms from sullen street kid into loving mom, as if a lifetime of horrible abuse never happened. “Short Term 12” this ain’t.
The actors do what they can to elevate the material — Dowd (“Compliance”) is especially convincing — but the film’s agenda keeps trumping its drama. It’s a feature-length pamphlet.