Vanessa Hudgens’s campaign to erase the memory of “High School Musical” from our nation’s collective consciousness continues apace with “Gimme Shelter,” a fact-based indie drama in which the former Disney teen queen plays a troubled, pregnant 16-year-old runaway. As with her bad-girl performance in last year’s campy, cult-y “Spring Breakers” — which garnered more critical praise than viewers, but also a few outright pans, including mine — it’s unclear whether middle America is ready to embrace this newly serious actress.
That’s a shame, because she’s quite good.
It’s more than a matter of adopting fake facial piercings, matted hair, a spotty complexion, a Noo Yawk accent and a bad attitude, all of which Hudgens does with great conviction. That’s nothing that a host of other glamorous actresses seeking artistic street cred haven’t also done. Hudgens, however, makes the most of her physical transformation, down to her character’s shuffling, boyishly belligerent walk.
Hudgens also gets at the character’s vulnerability, making it poignantly clear that the chip on the girl’s shoulder is a defense mechanism. From the opening scene, when Apple decides to leave her mother — a junkie prostitute played, with ferocious intensity and filthy yellow teeth, by Rosario Dawson — it’s obvious that Apple is terrified, despite her bravado.
She tracks down her birth father, Tom (Brendan Fraser), a wealthy Wall Streeter who’s willing to take Apple in if she gets an abortion. But our heroine can’t go through with the procedure and finds herself in a shelter for pregnant teens. The movie, which was inspired by Kathy DiFiore, a New Jersey woman who operates several such shelters, has a strong antiabortion message but mostly avoids religiosity.
That doesn’t mean it’s areligious. James Earl Jones plays a kindly Roman Catholic priest who leads Apple to the shelter. At one point the camera zooms in, significantly, on a book, lingering on the words “Holy Bible.”
It isn’t especially polemic. At first, Apple isn’t interested in what the Good Book has to offer.
Filmmaker Ron Krauss wrote the script while living in one of DiFiore’s shelters, and the character of Apple is a composite of two real people, one of whom, Darlisha Dozier, plays a shelter resident. Thanks to Ann Dowd’s unvarnished performance as the fiercely protective yet baloney-free mother hen, Kathy, the film has a plain-spoken, un-preachy verisimilitude. The truth-telling is bolstered by a supporting cast that features, in addition to other real-life shelter residents, mostly unknown young actresses.
The mothers-to-be are shown sneaking into Kathy’s office to read their files — a surprisingly poignant scene — and delighting in such simple pleasures as a meal at an old-fashioned diner. Missing from these glimpses of shelter life, however, is the Bible study offered as part of DiFiore’s shelter programs (which the real-life DeFiore spoke about at a post-screening Q&A session). I suppose that would have seemed too much like proselytizing.
When it comes to its agenda of raising awareness about pregnant teens who choose to keep their babies, “Gimme Shelter” has a lighter touch than you might think. Yet there are times when its attempts at wringing drama out of real life are more strenuous than is strictly necessary.
After Apple has had her baby and reunited with her father, there’s a touching scene where the new grandfather is cradling his daughter’s infant, flashes of regret and joy playing out subtly on Fraser’s expressive face. Though Tom doesn’t need to tell us what he’s feeling, Krauss’s script feels compelled to. “I never got to do this with you,” Tom tells Apple.
It’s not the only time “Gimme Shelter” doesn’t trust the power of its own story — and the truth of its acting — to deliver the point.
★ ★ ½
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains mildly crude language, mature themes and brief violence.