Review: Gimme Shelter
When there’s life, there’s hope
by Gail Deibler Finke
Lets’s start with the important stuff: Is Gimme Shelter any good? Is it a “Christian” movie? Who will like it?
1) I’d give it a solid B. 2) It’s not a “Christian” movie in the same way that “Fireproof” and similar films are. 3) Anyone who works in or has sympathy for the pro-life movement will find it a must-see; and anyone who likes inspirational films, movies about women’s lives and women overcoming obstacles, or working with troubled teens will find it compelling.
I give it a B because it’s well-made, well-acted, and a real “Hollywood” movie — not a movie you feel obliged to see because it’s well-intended, but has to be judged as if it’s a college film project. But it can’t quite decide whether it wants to be a straight-up story about interesting characters and situations or whether it wants to be a fictionalized documentary showcasing the work of a shelter for pregnant teens and its foundress. As a result, it doesn’t entirely succeed at either.
The plot follows the 16-year-old Agnes (who calls herself Apple, for reasons you eventually discover), played by Vanessa Hudgens. Raised by a drug-addicted mother and bounced back and forth between foster homes, she runs away and seeks help from her father, a wealthy Wall Street tycoon with a gorgeous foreign wife, a mansion, and two young children. For reasons the movie doesn’t explain, he’s never looked for her or attempted to support her, even anonymously — all she has of him is a letter he wrote to her before she was born.
She’s repellant, savage, and rude, just like real troubled kids. When the family discovers she’s pregnant, they decide that she should have an abortion and “turn the page” on that part of her life. Unable to care for herself, her only choices are to do what she is told or run away. Unable to trust, she lashes out at everyone. In a scene all the more chilling for its low-key depiction of casual, callous treatment of how young women with problem pregnancies are treaed, her father’s wife takes Apple — not to the “real” hospital that diagnosed her — but to an abortion clinic. Finding her still dressed, one of the workers tells her to hurry up because the doctor is on his way. Apple’s life, we see in other scenes with medical and social workers, has always been this way. She’s not a person, but a problem that must be solved or moved on to someone else.
An ultrasound picture of her baby, taken at the “real” hospital, changes Apple’s mind — as pro-life advocates know happens every day. How she gets from the clinic to the shelter seems to bother some secular movie critics as “unrealistic,” although (again) pro-life advocates know that similar things happen every day. Prayer is involved, and the help of a priest (James Earl Jones, a little too “James Earl Jones” to be entirely believable, though he tries), and a devout Catholic woman who runs a shelter for pregnant teens.
“Awash in religious imagery,” one secular clinic write, dismissively, but anyone who knows extremely devout Catholics will realize that the Catholic elements are toned way, way down. The movie isn’t “Christian” in the Evangelical sense, with characters holding spontaneous Bible studies and praying over each other, and a movie-related 12-week course on sale at Christian bookstores. It’s Christian in the Catholic sense — which means that the Catholic characters are Catholic, and they act as they do because they’re Catholic, but they don’t make a big deal about it. They just forge on.
Does Apple have a future? The movie answers that question fitfully. After nailing her performance as the despairing, savage teen, Hudgens is not really given a chance to show how (spoiler alert!) Apple transforms into a young woman who may be able to build a life for herself and her baby. She just does. The same goes for the shelter — after establishing that it helps young women, the movie never shows it doing anything helpful. Brendan Fraser is likable and tentative as the father surprised by the arrival of the wounded daughter he’s never met and has no idea what to do with, but his role is only half developed. Clunky dialogue in the long speeches and in a pivotal letter stand out against the otherwise gritty script.
But what the film does right, it does really right. Rosario Dawson as Apple’s abusive, rage-filled mother, June, dominates every scene she’s in. Her plea for Apple to come home and live with her, alternately loving and threatening, is terrifying to watch. She was also a teenage mother, she refused to abort her child, and her rage about how her life turned out is palpable. When she shows up at the shelter to take Apple, Ann Dowd as real-life shelter foundress Kathy DiFiore is spot-on in her portrayal of how professionals deal with disturbed, violent people — Gimme Shelter might be documentary footage at that point. The storyline between the two women: will Apple’s life turn out like her mother’s? What will June do to get her back — or get revenge if she can’t? Is the most difficult, but best, part of the movie.
It also ends abruptly, as do all the storylines. There’s no satisfying “end,” no family reconciliation (the final scene points to a possible one in the future), and no hint of how Apple’s life turns out. Apple makes a decision without prompting or running away for the first time in her life, but it’s not one that makes much sense. As a story, Gimme Shelter doesn’t entirely manage to satisfy. But it comes close.
Far from depicting a rosy, hearts-and-rainbows look at pregnant teens that secular people think the pro-life movement believes, Gimme Shelter doesn’t sugar-coat anything: Apple is living proof that simply being born doesn’t mean things will turn out all right for any child. Loving her is an act of will, because she’s literally unlovable. Her family may be able to make a new life together, but no one can ever fix what started out broken. Holding Apple’s baby, her father gives the only explanation he ever does for why he gave her up: “I didn’t know,” he says softly.
Life is hard, and often people just don’t know what they’re agreeing to or giving up. Apple doesn’t know what she’s agreeing to when she has her baby. But (in this case, literally) where there’s life, there’s hope.
Gail Deibler Finke is Senior Editor of The Catholic Beat. A version of this review appeared in Our Sunday Visitor.