Sincerely contrived teen drama finds Vanessa Hudgens in a family way
Directed by Ron Krauss
Cast: Vanessa Hudgens, Rosario Dawson, Brendan Fraser
Pity the poor teenaged Disney star. Sure, they get three or four good years headlining a sitcom on the Disney Channel and a couple of pop hits out of it. But they spend the next 10 years trying desperately to shed their goody two-shoes image. Take, for example, Britney Spears between 2000 (“Oops!...I Did it Again”) and 2007 (that whole head-shaving thing). Or all of Miley Cyrus’ post-“Hannah Montana” behavior. Or Annette Funicello’s notorious coke-filled orgies in the late ’60s. (OK, I may have imagined that last one.) Now it’s Vanessa Hudgens’ turn to show us all how much she’s changed since 2006’s Disney Channel sensation High School Musical. Following her “Look, I’m having a threesome in a pool just like Wild Things!” performance in 2012’s Spring Breakers, Hudgens goes full-on method actress for the runaway teen drama Gimme Shelter. Somewhere in Burbank Ashley Tisdale is rolling over in her grave.
In Gimme Shelter Hudgens plays Agnes “Apple” Bailey, a pregnant, 16-year-old New Yorker who’s been shuttled from foster home to foster home thanks to an absentee father and a horrible mother. Tired of secondhand families, Apple hunts down her messed-up mom (Rosario Dawson), who seems inordinately pissed that Apple isn’t following in her footsteps (as a junkie hooker, apparently). Fed up with life on the streets, Apple decides it’s time to go in search of the father she’s never met. Turns out he’s some cartoonishly rich Wall Street investor with a mansion in suburban New Jersey. As it happens Dad (Brendan Fraser) is a sympathetic dude, but his uptight wife (Stephanie Szostak) doesn’t adapt all that well to the sudden addition of an unwashed teenage runaway to the family. They suggest an immediate abortion might be the best course of action for Apple to take. However a sonogram of the fetus instantly convinces the homeless, spouseless, jobless, degreelesss teen that she needs to keep her baby. (Texas was right!) Guess it’s time to run away again.
Cut to a montage of Apple sleeping in abandoned cars and eating out of dumpsters. After a brief stop in the hospital—where she gets a friendly lecture and a Bible-to-go from wise old priest James Earl Jones—Apple ends up in a halfway house for pregnant teenagers. There, thanks to the ministrations of a kindly aid worker and some sympathetic unwed mothers, Apple starts to turn her troubled life around.
Gimme Shelter, allegedly based on a true story, is nothing if not earnest. Hudgens really throws herself into the main role, making herself as unglamorous as possible and emoting like hell. Her performance is all bad skin, lip rings and weed-whacker-styled hair. But it’s hard to tell at this point how good an actress Hudgens really is. Here she expresses her character’s streetwise attitude mostly by yelling a lot and eating with her mouth open. The fault probably lies with writer-director Ron Krauss (who gave us 2003’s direct-to-DVD schlocker Alien Hunter). Krauss really wants to make a serious, Sundance-style teen drama in the mold of Catherine Hardwicke’s Thirteen or Lee Daniels’ Precious. But he doesn’t quite have the chops, defaulting to simple melodrama when unflinching reality is what’s called for.
Honestly the cautionary subject matter is far more suited to an ABC Afterschool Special than an indie drama. There are several times when the film looks like it’s going to become a preachy, anti-abortion screed. But Krauss doesn’t even have enough conviction to go evangelical Christian on us. The script just wanders from one teary-eyed acting workshop scene to another until Apple winds up at the teen shelter—which is presumably the point of the film. Even there, the script falls down. None of the girls is given enough personality to stand out as individuals, generating only low-level sympathy for what’s happening on screen.
It’s clear everyone involved wanted to make a hard-hitting, inspirational drama about homeless teens. But even as it’s talking about junkies and hookers, the film soft-peddles its subject matter, coyly avoiding the really dark stuff so that it can land a PG-13 rating. Admittedly that could lure more teenagers into the theaters to hear its message. But what is the message? Heavily sanitized and sprinkled with cliché, the ultimate lesson ends up being the same one that MTV’s “Teen Mom” series delivers: “Go ahead and get pregnant, teenagers. Everything will work out fine. And with a little luck, they’ll make a TV show or movie about your life.”