Though not subtle, Gimme Shelter is held aloft by two dynamic performances.
The first: Vanessa Hudgens as Agnes “Apple” Bailey. Much as she did in Frozen Ground (2013), Hudgens breathes life into a downtrodden character, overcoming script weaknesses to make us care.
The second: Brendan Fraser (Tom Fitzpatrick). Fraser is given little screen time and even less character development, but he makes Tom real, neither perfect nor villainous. This might be his best performance since Gods and Monsters (1998).
Fraser and Hudgens, especially the latter, buy the viewer’s interest.
No small achievement, given the film’s myriad flaws. First, an early sequence involving abortion borders on proselytizing. The three characters who approve of the procedure are cold and cruel, completely unconcerned about a child’s emotional well-being as they force her to terminate her pregnancy. A pro-life stance is fine, but here the message is too heavy handed.
Second, Joanna (Stephanie Szostak) and Tom are poorly developed. At one point, they are unbearably, though also unwittingly, cruel. The next time we see them? They appear to be the world’s greatest grandparents.
Minor characters, like the girls at Kathy’s (Ann Dowd) shelter, are virtually traitless, no matter their importance to Apple’s growth.
But worst of all is June (Rosario Dawson), who only cares about receiving her state-issued welfare check.
In playing June with sinister intensity, Rosario Dawson doesn’t help.
Either does Writer/Director Ron Krauss, who makes Dawson’s teeth disgustingly yellow, her costumes so loose fitting and disheveled that they seem apt to fall off, and her hair so dirty and stringy we can almost smell it. Krauss’ directorial choices, just like his screenplay and Dawson’s performance, force us to hate June.
It is not the only time the director manipulates us. When life is worst for Apple, we see her banging on locked shelter doors, eating garbage and sleeping in parked cars that do not belong to her. She also constantly exposes a neck tattoo, wears nasal and lip piercings and never tends to the hair she cut short herself.
When her life improves, she begins wearing cardigans that hide the tattoo, grows out and styles her hair, and removes the lip and nose rings.
All of which tries to make us feel the emotion Krauss intends, not to immerse us in a story.
Too much of his dialogue does the same. For example, when Tom holds Apple’s baby, Fraser powerfully mixes joy and regret. But Krauss still adds the line, “I never got to do this with you,” and thereby ensures we understand exactly what emotion we’re meant to feel.
Given all of these missteps, Gimme Shelter should be unwatchable.
But it isn’t. Because Hudgens, unlike the rest of the movie, is so endearing, so nuanced, so subtle, that we remain interested.
Also, Krauss develops Apple well.
And wisely includes occassional happiness, or at least calm, in Apple’s life, no matter the circumstances around her.
Still, this movie belongs to Vanessa Hudgens. She single-handedly almost saves Gimme Shelter, in spite of her director.