Grim and unsettling, Gimme Shelter is a social tract about the benefits of getting into the homeless shelter game. It’s a true story about how one disenfranchised teenage girl, tortured and hardened by a hardscrabble life, finally learns to trust long enough to build a future. It’s not for the squeamish, but thanks to a riveting central performance by Vanessa Hudgens and a compassionate screenplay by Ron Krauss, who also directed, this is a far more sobering and substantial exposé of homeless teenage girls on the dangerous edge of society than you might expect.
Tattooed, pierced and hard as a brick, rings of metal ripping through her lips and nose like instruments of sadism, 16-year-old Agnes Bailey, who calls herself Apple, has lived a life that makes Elsie Dinsmore seem like Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. Her mother is an addict and an alcoholic, verbally and physically abusive, who has locked away her unwanted daughter’s childhood in a series of government-subsidized foster homes. Now she’s grooming Apple to follow the same self-destructive pattern. As a result, the girl knows all about motels and back alleys but nothing about love. Miraculously, there is still something inexplicable beneath her tough facade that prevents her from succumbing to self-destruction.
Miserable, lost, pregnant and homeless, she hops a Greyhound and heads for New Jersey to find her biological father, a man named Tom Fitzpatrick. He was an ignorant 19 when she was born, and despite efforts to find him, all she has is an address. To her amazement, Apple finds him—now a successful Wall Street broker (Brendan Fraser, playing against type) with a wife, two kids and a luxurious home in the suburbs. Overcome with a guilty conscience about the past, Tom feeds, clothes and tries to help his wayward Goth of a daughter until he discovers she wants to keep her baby and his horrified wife deserts her at an abortion clinic. It’s every bit as depressing as it sounds, but Gimme Shelter moves at a healthy pace, involving the viewer with a growing case history that gains compassion as it gathers focus.
Living on the street and eating out of garbage cans, Apple steals and wrecks a van and ends up in the security ward of a hospital in Newark, where she is saved by a sympathetic priest who leads her reluctantly to a shelter for unwed teenage mothers that eventually, through trial and error, leads to her salvation. These places do exist, and the fortunate and more mature girls who end up there can survive with integrity, courage and pride if they learn the value of empowering sisterhood.
The film is not for every taste, of course, but what makes it inspiring is the truthfulness in the writing and direction, especially in a set of immaculate performances. James Earl Jones is warm and benevolent without being cloying, Brendan Fraser is touching as a man torn between duty and pragmatism, willing to make sacrifices to right an unbearable wrong, and Rosario Dawson as Apple’s hateful mother even manages to make invincible human tragedy vulnerable. But it is the galvanizing force of Vanessa Hudgens who catapults Gimme Shelter above the heartbreaking level of soap opera with a lancing effect. Even on the verge of mental collapse, she picks up the pieces and moves on gallantly, her face a three-act play of mortal tenderness. She has come a long way since the High School Musical franchise. Small wonder she names her baby Hope.
WRITTEN BY Ron Krauss
DIRECTED BY Ron Krauss
STARRING Vanessa Hudgens, Rosario Dawson and Brendan Fraser
RUNNING TIME 120 min.