"Gimme Shelter," a ripped-from-real-life story of a pregnant teen's journey toward hope, is filled with very good intentions, very bad dialogue and a surprisingly affecting turn by its star Vanessa Hudgens.
One of "High School Musical's" breakout stars, Hudgens chops off her hair and adds 15 pounds to her frame to help bring a believable grit and a tough exterior to the young teen.
Following Hudgens' standout turn as a college girl gone bad in 2013's cult hit "Spring Breakers," it seems as if the actress is starting to find her footing as someone to be taken seriously. Unfortunately, the rest of the film collapses around her with some of the most hackneyed moments imaginable.
Ronald Krauss, who wrote and directed the film, initially intended to make a documentary about Kathy DiFiore, whose Several Sources Shelters have long helped the homeless and the hopeless get back on their feet. After a year living at one of her shelters, he decided to do a narrative film instead.
Whatever medium the filmmaker works in, Krauss is a man on a mission. His 1998 short "Puppies for Sale" is about a boy and a dog with a hip defect; 2000's "Rave" focused on the dangers of that drug-driven scene, and 2010's "Amexica," his last, dug into human trafficking along the border. There is a little more surety in the directing of "Gimme Shelter," but not enough to help it survive the predictability of the plot, which remains Krauss' Achilles' heel.
The film opens with Hudgens' Apple cutting her hair to make her escape from a drug-addicted and abusive mother, played by a dirtied-up Rosario Dawson. But the scene's logic cracks apart immediately when Apple passes her mother on her way out the door.
The teen hopes that the father she's never met might step in and rescue her. A Wall Street broker, Tom (Brendan Fraser) is flush with money and guilt. When she turns up at his posh suburban home, he takes her in. But with a resistant wife and a growing family, it is no surprise that there is friction in the house.
Fraser brings a kind of helpless sensitivity to the role, his face carrying a constant apology. But his character is left with so little to do it represents one of many missed opportunities to bring some real meaning to the film. (In a noteworthy gesture, the actor donated his salary to DiFiore's nonprofit.)
A beating by street thugs lands Apple in a hospital, where minister Frank McCarthy (James Earl Jones) offers a little wisdom and a lifeline. It will take a few more ups and downs and angry exchanges with just about anyone who comes in contact with Apple for her to grab it.
There are no surprises as the girl makes her way to the shelter, where emotional, educational, physical and spiritual rescue awaits. Ann Dowd plays DiFiore, and some of the girls in the film are real residents.
Hudgens makes the most of her time on screen, digging deeper than she has in the past to unearth the rocky emotional core of a troubled teen. There are moments of vulnerability and indecision in her performance that begin to illuminate the serious issues facing kids in such straits. Those moments are fleeting. What sticks in the sense that the actress is on her way to making a mark.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for mature thematic material involving mistreatment, some drug content, violence and language — all concerning teens
Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes
Playing: In general release