Best known for their work with the Dardenne Brothers, cinematographer Alain Marcoen and editor Marie-Hélène Dozo seem like an odd fit for a piece of “inspirational” treacle like Gimme Shelter. Essentially a fundraising puff piece, the movie depicts life in one of the Catholic shelters run by Kathy DiFiore (Ann Dowd) from the perspective of Apple (Vanessa Hudgens), a pregnant teenager who comes to DiFiore’s attention after running away from her welfare-collecting mother and then being pressured into getting an abortion by her father’s treacherous French wife. Government programs and social workers are depicted as uncaring and ineffective, while DiFiore’s privately funded shelter is shown as an idyllic safe haven. Much is made of Ronald Reagan’s endorsement of DiFiore’s program, which should give viewers an idea of Gimme Shelter’s intended audience.
There’s nothing wrong with social-cause filmmaking, and the movie’s chief problem is less its political talking points than the corny way it tries to impart them, pitting one-dimensional monsters—of which Apple’s mother, June (Rosario Dawson, wearing fake yellow Halloween teeth), is the worst—against saintly figures like DiFiore and Father McCarthy (James Earl Jones). Marcoen’s Super 16mm camerawork will occasionally lend the drama a sense of reality (he’s a master of the immediate, locked-in-on-a-subject handheld camera), only to have director Ron Krauss’ script drag the movie back into contrived preachiness. For instance, just as Apple gets settled into life at the shelter, June arrives, smoking indoors and talking about all the money they’re going to get from the government. Of course the viewer has to root for Apple to stay in the shelter; the problem, though, is that real parent-child relationships—even with abusive or neglectful parents—tend to be more complicated.
Dawson’s performance is cartoonish, but Hudgens’ is embarrassing. De-glamorized, with short hair, acne, and patches of dark facial hair along her cheeks, Hudgens looks the part of a downtrodden teenager. The problem is with how she sounds, awkwardly trying—and failing—to tackle Krauss’ slang-heavy dialogue, over-stressing every bit of vernacular grammar as though saying it louder will make it seem more authentic. (Her pronunciation of “aks” is especially painful.) Because Apple’s voice never comes naturally to Hudgens, she struggles to emote; the anxiety and frustration that supposedly define her character are never palpable.
This leaves a glaring hole in the center of Gimme Shelter. Aside from some (possibly unintentional) sapphic tension between Apple and her shelter roommate, Cassie (Emily Meade), and a competent performance from Brendan Fraser as Apple’s dad, the film feels emotionless—a crippling flaw for a melodrama that’s trying to make the argument that group shelters are, emotionally, the best environment for teenage mothers. Occasionally, Marcoen’s camerawork and Dozo’s attentive editing are able to create the impression that Apple has an interior life; however, as soon as Hudgens has to perform instead of merely walking around or staring off into space, that impression disappears.