Vanessa Hudgens has come a long way since her High School Musical days. She's definitely grown as an actress and has branched out into roles that no one would have seen her taking on a few years ago. So there's something even more refreshing about her role in Gimme Shelter, and her dedication to playing the part the right way. Her portrayal of pregnant teenager Apple works in a movie where not everything does.
Agnes "Apple" Bailey (Hudgens) lives an unhappy, abusive, and deteriorating life. She lives with her mom June (Rosario Dawson) and is forced to help her in her business of prostitution. June isn't the ideal loving mother nor does she really try to be. She's always dirty, forces her daughter into doing things, is a drug addict, and is verbally abusive and aggressive towards her. Apple gets fed up and runs away from home in order to go and find Tom (Brendan Fraser), the dad she never knew.
Tom now works on Wall Street and is married with kids. He tries to help Apple in the only way he knows how, which is to basically tell her what to do with her life, but Apple isn't pleased with the way she's being treated by his wife, so she runs away from there too. But not before discovering that she is pregnant. She decides to keep her baby, but is close to losing her daughter when she gets into a car crash. In the hospital, she meets Father Frank McCarthy (James Earl Jones) who tries to help her and she ends up finding a home with Kathy (Ann Dowd), a woman who has opened up her home for young, pregnant girls who need help. Slowly, Apple finds a family and a way to get her life back on track.
Director Ron Krauss thoroughly researched everything for this film as well as lived in the shelter for awhile. The character of Apple is based on several of the shelter girls' stories and Krauss even adds a touch of reality by filming the shelter scenes in the real-life Kathy's home. So the touch of real life is welcome and makes the film even more hard to bear in certain parts knowing what Apple and the rest of the girls in the shelter went through.
A lot of the film touches on Apple's struggles and her typical teenage stubborn streak that declares that she knows how to deal with her own life, but secretly wishes that someone would help her and care. The film generally does a good job portraying that since we follow Apple's journey from beginning to end and we see the progression of her character. Apple's mom is just as complex a character and while a lot of the movie is spent hating on her, there's one split second where you actually begin to feel sorry for her because of where she ended up in life compared to how she was before.
The movie begins to falter a little bit after Apple reaches the shelter. There she meets a girl named Cassie (Emily Meade), whose plight isn't something we completely understand. We get why she's at the shelter, why she doesn't like being at the shelter, and why she wants to run away from it, but her message and her story are somewhat disjointed. It's as though Cassie's only there to be the possible wrench in the system, the girl no one really understands and who hates everyone on principle. But her presence ends up being a little confusing rather than useful and her relationship with Apple goes from hate to friendship in a blink of an eye without explanation.
At some points the movie feels like it could have been a better documentary than a feature film because it's almost too factual sometimes. It's almost as though Krauss tries to put in everything he's learned about these girls into the movie but at the expense of slowing the movie down. Also, occasionally, the movie gets a little too preachy in its message, but ultimately finds solid ground again near the end.
The movie's greatest strengths are its performances. Hudgens cuts off her hair, gains weight for the role, and just embodies the character she's playing to the point of being unrecognizable. Everything about her character down to the way she walks screams "I need help!" Her scenes with Rosario Dawson are full of tension and a heightened sense of danger, because Dawson is particularly creepy and out of control in her role. James Earl Jones is always a welcome sight in any film, and here is no exception.
To sum it up, Hudgens gives a fantastic performance in a film that isn't perfect but is, at the same time, somewhat moving. The great performances are what fuels this film and you can tell that Hudgens and Dawson (and they're pointed out in particular because they have far more to do than Jones or Brendan Fraser) really pour all they have into this movie. Hudgens is unrecognizable and is bound for more complex roles now that she's proven she can succeed outside of the cutesy world she was introduced in. Ron Krauss delivers a decent film that falters and slows in its second act before finding its way to the end, not unlike its lead character.