Friday, January 24, 2014

Gimme Shelter

Review by Pamela Zoslov

It's really hard to criticize a filmmaker whose previous work includes a short called “Puppies for Sale,” which sounds excruciatingly cute (a young boy chooses a handicapped puppy at a pet store, and everyone, including the pet store owner, learns a valuable lesson). Writer/director Ron Krauss has his heart in the right place, having spent an entire year in a shelter for pregnant teens. That experience was the basis of his new film, GIMME SHELTER, which has almost nothing in common with the Maysles brothers' Altamont documentary of the same name.

Well-meaning it is, with heartwarming messages about survival, family, love and faith. Vanessa Hudges, an alumna of HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL, plays Apple, not the daughter of Gwyneth Paltrow, but the 16-year-old daughter of a drug-addicted prostitute, June, played ferociously by Rosario Dawson. Apple, whose name is really Agnes but prefers the nickname bestowed on her by the father she never met, runs away from her abusive, drug-addled mom and embarks on a hard life on the streets. She finds her way to the suburban New Jersey mansion owned by her father, Tom, played by the constantly misused Brendan Fraser, where she is promptly handcuffed by police for skulking around the yard. Dad is a Wall Street executive but also a sweetheart, pinstripe suits notwithstanding. He waves away the cops and agrees to let Apple stay for a while, to the chagrin of his pert wife, Joanna (French actress Stephanie Szostak), who can't countenance this scruffy revenant from her husband's past.

It turns out that Apple is pregnant, which repulses Joanna so much she tries to ditch Apple during a clinic appointment. Tom and Joanna push Apple to have an abortion, so she runs away. Back on the streets, all kinds of bad stuff happens to Apple. She eats out of Dumpsters. A pimp (stereotypically black) tries to recruit her, but she hijacks the pimp's ride instead, crashes it and lands in a hospital. Life on the streets! In the hospital, Apple encounters a magically compassionate chaplain, Father McCarthy, who not only sounds like James Earl Jones but is James Earl Jones.

Still with me? Good. Now, Apple has no use for Father McCarthy's “God,” who has never helped her and let her suffer abuse in a series of foster homes. “God don't care about me,” she says, and kicks the good chaplain out of her hospital room. Apple's mom, with her drug-yellowed teeth, puts on a tearful act about wanting her back, but it turns out that's just for the welfare money (she's a Latina version of the monster mom in PRECIOUS). Father James Earl Jones gets Apple placed in a faith-based shelter for young unwed mothers, run by the saintly Kathy (Ann Dowd). We know she's saintly because the home's walls feature photos of Kathy with Mother Teresa and, er, Ronald Reagan. The character is based on Kathy DiFiore, founder of Several Sources Shelters, the apparent reason the movie was made.

There are things that are quite good in the movie — it is very competently directed and features strong, emotive performances, especially by Miss Hudgens. (Director Krauss is superior to Writer Krauss.) However, the ethnic stereotyping is disturbing: the aforementioned African American pimp, Dawson's histrionic Latina prostitute, so tough she spits in faces and wields a razor blade between her teeth. Furthermore, the narrative, after a promising start, turns flabby, and fails to explore some of the interesting elements suggested. For instance, what was going on all those years ago between future Wall Street Dad and future Street Whore June? An ill-fated "West Side Story" romance? We'd like to know, but all we find out is that they “went out a few times.”

Apple is transformed by the compassion and camaraderie among the other residents at the shelter, though the process by which this happens isn't entirely clear. Some of the girls resent the rules of the shelter, which require them to do a lot of fundraising, stuffing envelopes and holding posters of their babies' cute faces to solicit donations at church. Are they being exploited? At least one resident girl thinks so, but the story doesn't go there. Eventually, Apple, chastened by motherhood, realizes that her shelter “sisters” are the only family she's ever really had. And we, the audience, have the feeling that GIMME SHELTER isn't so much a drama about a troubled teen as a well made anti-abortion tract/infomercial. 2 1/2 out of 4 stars.

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