Directed by Ron Krause
Starring Vanessa Hudgens, Brendan Fraser, Rosario Dawson, Ann Dowd and James Earl Jones
From Day 28 Films and Roadside Attractions
Hudgens excels in wish-washy drama
by Michael Clawson of Terminal Volume
Gimme Shelter has noble intentions that get lost in all the thematic clutter.
It’s a message movie with so many conflicting messages that its core feels hallow and quiet, like the eye of a hurricane. The ultimate victim here is Vanessa Hudgens, who turns in a performance that shows her acting has depth, or at least the potential for it. The former Disney star has given interesting performances before, including in last year’s bombastic Spring Breakers, a movie that she didn’t so much act in, but rather desperately clung to as it rocketed away to another planet.
Hudgens plays Agnes, an edgy teen with five facial piercings living in troublesome conditions with her drug-addicted mother, June (Rosario Dawson). In the first scene, Agnes has had enough and flees in a cab ride she can’t afford. She eventually ends up at the home of her father (Brendan Fraser), whom she has never met except in a letter he wrote to her before she was born. He has a family and significant wealth — “Real estate?” Agnes asks; “No, Wall Street,” he tells her. During dinner Agnes throws up unexpectedly, which is secret movie code for cancer or pregnancy. For Agnes it’s pregnancy.
The stepmother, who resents her existence, offers to take her to get an abortion, but Agnes can’t go through with it so she ditches the procedure and starts living on the streets and sleeping in parked cars. The movie mostly wanders with Agnes, who aimlessly bounces from one place to another. Eventually she ends up a shelter for young pregnant mothers, where the other girls accept her as one of their own.
Gimme Shelter plays like a Republican fever dream: minorities eating up all the welfare, abortion not being a valid solution, the Wall Street executive and his form of trickle-down economics, the public sector (not big government) and its role in society’s problems, and a rather prominent Ronald Reagan namedrop. The whole thing smacks of GOP ideology. The movie is probably non-partisan at its core, but I couldn’t help but think of Rush Limbaugh giddily smiling at all the plot points.
Mostly though, Gimme Shelter seems confused about what it actually is. I wasn’t sure if this was a commentary on single mothers, absent fathers, druggie mothers, the sad state of teen shelters, or some sort of Frankenstein mish-mash of all of it. And then, in the credits, photos of the real characters are shown next to the actors playing them suggesting this is a bio-pic, but of who: Agnes, the Wall Street father, the shelter worker? The movie mostly focuses on Agnes, but it can’t seem to agree on what’s best for her.
The movie mixes its messages because no one is shown in a sympathetic light. Fraser’s father figure, wearing the most Donald Trump of hairstyles, flip flops several times. One moment he’s an arrogant jerk and the next he’s lavishing gifts on his daughter and his first grandbaby. The shelter worker (played by Ann Dowd) is even more perplexing: at times she seems to have a heart of gold, and then she crashes churches to use her shelter girls to beg for money. Even Agnes seems confused, especially in her final choices, which are beyond aggravating. Without giving too much away, let me say she takes permanent advantage of a temporary program.
The only two characters who exhibit any consistency are a kind-hearted pastor played by James Earl Jones and the despicable mother. June, whose yellow teeth could serve as the inspiration for all those old “yo momma” dentistry jokes, is one vile monster. Two women sitting behind me at my screening seemed to hiss every time she appeared on the screen. Late in the movie I was pondering where the nearest portable defibrillator might be when June shows up with a razor in her mouth — the two women survived.
Hudgens deserves some recognition for her engrossing, if also uneven, performance. She plays Agnes as a scrappy little fighter conflicted by her past and her increasingly sorrowful plight. I liked the way Hudgens refused to glamourize the role; Agnes is the ugly duckling right until the end. It’s not going to be her greatest acting job, but hopefully it will be the first in a string of dramatic roles that mark her presence as a serious actress.
If only Gimme Shelter had a clearer message. By the end of the movie, all I had gleaned was teen pregnancy was good and bad, shelters were confining and liberating, estranged fathers were absent and present, and charity was a despicable handout and a gracious necessity. The movie needs to commit to something. Anything.