True stories about people who have performed incredible acts of humanitarianism tend to be very heartwarming, but lacking in the kind of conflict that can make for an entertaining film-going experience. Even when the central character is known on a larger scale for their exploits, say Mahatma Gandhi, the films around them can tend to get bogged down in boring details and lose site of the heart of the work the person was engaged in. While it may make for a great History Channel biopic, it’s not as interesting to watch as a story of someone who overcame great adversity to find success in life. This was my line of thinking as I sat down to watch the upcoming film Gimme Shelter, well once I first dismissed the idea that it had something to do with the beginnings of the Rolling Stones- it doesn’t.
I knew Gimme Shelter was based on the work done by Kathy DiFiore- a saintly woman who has given the better part of her life to taking in and meeting the needs of some of the more trampled upon people that New Jersey has to offer. Hundreds of people are better off today because Ms. DiFiore cared, and her efforts have gained her an audience with world leaders such as President Reagan. Were the story of Gimme Shelter to follow her life, I have no doubt it would be one worth telling and even worth seeing if for no other reason than to pay respect for the sacrifices she’s made in her life. But the movie doesn’t tell her life story, at least, not directly. Instead, writer/director/producer Ronald Krauss decided to show us the impact her life has had by focusing on the dramatic story of one of the people she has helped- an unwanted pregnant teen struggling to find her value. The result is a heartwarming, and often times gut wrenching, tale of survival in the face of insurmountable odds.
Gimme Shelter stars an almost unrecognizable Vanessa Hudgens in a tour de force turn as Agnes Bailey, a 16 year-old girl from a broken home and extreme poverty. When the film starts, Apple (as she is known by those closest to her) has decided to run away from June (her mom, played powerfully by Rosario Dawson) and the life of prostitution June has recruited her into. Her hair is dirty, her clothes are torn, and the bags under her eyes are so heavy that the weight of the life she has lived is immediately evident. In a desperate attempt to escape it, she jumps into a cab and holds the door shut, keeping her screaming mother at bay long enough for the driver to pull off. Without enough money for the fare, she is soon abandoned on the side of the highway. Broke, beaten, and now homeless, Apple makes her way to the only refuge she can think of- the house of her Wall Street broker father (Brendan Fraser) who she hasn’t seen since he abandoned her mom years ago. With the opportunity to be the father to her in her late teens that he wasn’t in her youth, Fraser invites her to stay with him and his wife and kids, but when it is discovered that Apple is pregnant, and that she intends to keep the baby, the situation quickly grows tense.
A series of fortuitous events leads Apple to Frank McCarthy- a local priest played by the always-fantastic James Earl Jones. McCarthy introduces Apple to Kathy DiFiore (Ann Dowd) and the shelter she has created for teen girls in trouble. Kathy’s genuine no strings attached love begins to instill a confidence in Apple that had been glaringly absent. She soon discovers the strength to confront and stand up to those that have abandoned and abused her.
At this point, Krauss has planted a rich foundation by setting up some very strong and distinct characters, cultivating and teasing out the tensions between them, and casting them perfectly with more than capable actors. He will spend the rest of the film harvesting some fantastic performances from them.
In confronting the haunting of his act of abandonment, Fraser shows a vulnerability and range that makes us long for more leading roles for him. In multiple scenes, Dawson exposes a nerve so raw that its pain is almost uncomfortable to watch. This is a testament to her ability, as the role is written as something of a conservative male’s stereotype of a single African-American mom on welfare. But it’s the unexpected power of Hudgens’ performance that stands out most from this film. By playing Apple with an authentic vulnerability tinged with an unshakable resolve, Hudgens has put her Disney days firmly in the rearview mirror while demanding that we take notice of her future. She is a gifted and daring actress who has brighter days ahead of her.While some of the supporting roles seem to have been given the one-dimensional treatment in their writing, the strong casting overcomes this, resulting in well-rounded characters throughout. Moments that initially seemed to set themselves up for a faith-based film sermon, ended up being allowed to play out in action only- allowing the audience to search for the moral rather than spelling it out. And a story that could have been an encouraging biopic about one amazing woman’s life, has instead become an amazing testament to what a difference one life can make. Because of this decision by Mr. Krauss, fantastic performances and an inspiring story of choosing life in the midst of adversity will be the hallmark of Gimme Shelter. It’s based on a true story, and it will encourage you to see that we share humanity with people like this.