Gimme Shelter, a new film about teenage pregnancy, shares its title with the Maysles Brothers’ classic music documentary made in 1970 about the Rolling Stones’ 1969 tour. It’s an odd association. The older movie finds its horrifying climax in the frightful moments during the Altamont Free Concert when members of the Hells Angels Bikers Gang, who were providing security at the fest, beat a fan to death mere feet from the stage. That murder is often cited as a kind of still-birth of the hippie dream, the moment when the hope and ideals of a generation came crashing down to harsh reality.
I’m not sure why filmmakers trying to create a film that strives to exalt the courage, endurance and love of a young teenage mother would welcome such an association. It might merely signify a kind of cultural tone-deafness. This new Gimme Shelter is directed by Ron Krauss, who also directed the pilot for the Chicken Soup for the Soul TV series back in 1999, and this latest film feels drawn from the same stock. The film stars Vanessa Hudgens, of High School Musical fame, who plays a girl from a very troubled background. Her mother is a drug addict, she has been in and out of foster homes, and when she finally decides enough-is-enough and runs away, she’s tossed out of a cab and arrested for trespassing. Things seem to settle down when she connects with her estranged father, Tom (Brendan Fraser), who, after his youthful indiscretion with Apple’s mother, has become a successful stockbroker. He welcomes Apple, who’s made-up to be so dingy and dirty she almost looks like a character who tumbled out of a zombie film, into his sprawling, upper middle class home. However, things get strained again when it turns out Apple is pregnant. Tom and his wife Joanna (Stephanie Szostak) encourage her to have an abortion; Apple will have none of it.
What follows is a struggle of survival. Apple begins to understand her unborn child as another reject, just as her own life has unfolded as a succession of rejections. Apple flees the comfy confines of suburbia and winds up back on the streets, eventually landing in the hospital after an unlikely (and, frankly, unbelievable) car wreck. There she meets a priest, Frank McCarthy (James Earl Jones) who connects her with a woman’s shelter for pregnant teenagers. Finally, it seems Apple has found a place, though her mother keeps trying to shove herself back in her life. In one of the film’s most misplaced scenes, Apple’s mother June (Rosario Dawson) shows up at a church where the girls form the shelter are raising money. June has a razor blade hidden in her mouth; she walks up to her daughter and viciously slices her.
It’s a shock, but not in the way that Krauss intends. Instead, Gimme Shelter is filed with melodramatics, ancillary action, and other off-tone scenes that amp-up the visceral energy only to take away from the tenable drama. The film tries to demonstrate the unlikely resolve and strength of its young heroine. Towards this end, Hudgens proves capable. It’s a sulking performance that bursts forth with energy when the script calls for visceral physicality. It is a performance that won’t win Hudgens any awards, but her turn suggests that with a little maturity and a better script, Hudgens may have the capacity to be a capable actress who transcends her teenage pop persona.
But Gimme Shelter can’t transcend its own desperate attempts at making something meaningful and moving in a way that is both explicit and palatable. The film’s ensemble of characters and its attempts at building meaningful relations between them are too hackneyed. Chief offender is Dawson’s June, a hysterical, over-the-top portrayal of a woman who is an abuser and abused, who is both villain and victim, and yet, rather remarkably, a woman for whom we never seem to feel any real humanity beneath the bluster. As for Brendan Fraiser, even with the Mummy franchise, I have never been able to get past Encino Man, and I find it difficult to take him seriously in a serious role, particularly one as stonily understated as this this one. His Tom is ridged and calloused, though at times it feels like he is shuffling to find something meaty in a part that is one-dimensional. Those efforts to produce a few notes of emotional effect, but nothing that resembles the real paternal catharsis the situation and the role calls for. The film also boggles other opportunities, such as the scenes in the woman’s shelter. Here it could have really dug into to the interactions between the girls in a way that got closer to the ordeal of their experience, rather than reducing the scenes to the back-and-forth banter of an after school special.
To its credit, Gimme Shelter is trying to take on difficult issues, and it raises them in a provocative way, only to then fumble its own thematic conceit. The movie tries to place the issue of abortion in experience and give it a human face. The central relationship is the one between the teenage girl and her unborn baby. Unfortunately, the ideological, rather than human, underpinnings of the film’s dramatic motives are tipped by a few awkward and politicized gestures. When Apple arrives at the house, Father Frank shows her photos of the head of the woman’s shelter, Kathy (Ann), meeting Mother Teresa, and then quickly turns to another image: “And here she is meeting Ronald Reagan.“ There are also cheap jabs at Medicare and other government-funded social service programs, suggesting that Apple’s mother merely wants her daughter (and her unborn child) back to claim tax benefits. This doesn’t just lend the film a distracting polemical subtext, it helps further reduce Apple’s mother’s character to caricature, and all for the chance to toss knowing winks at an intended audience.
Gimme Shelter feels most dramatically tone deaf, though, in its concluding scenes. With babies born, we can’t help but wonder what will happen with these children and their mothers? Apple names her own daughter “Hope,” and it is that sentiment that fuels the film’s moral resolve. But then Apple climbs in a car with her very wealthy Wall Street father and drives away from the shelter and into her new, ready made suburban existence – turning to wave to the other, less lucky girls who stand on the stoop with their infants and no rich daddies on their way to pick them up. There are no women in the shelter with toddlers, or young children, and no mention of at what point—and with what further assistance – they get kicked-out.
The film almost ends on this note, but even Krauss can’t seem to stomach the abandonment. Instead, he opts for a more ambiguous coda. It resolves little, but does manage to create one last emotional swoon. And that seems to be the point here, to bring us a true to life story, and then take that life and boil it into melodramatics, serving up something sweeter and safer than the real thing.