The 41st anniversary of Roe v. Wade was on January 22, and the controversial Supreme Court ruling on a woman’s right to choose is still as hotly contested as ever. Gimme Shelter, a “based on a true story” film about a 16-year-old girl who is fighting to keep her unborn child, was conveniently released on the weekend of that case’s anniversary, but that doesn’t mean it’s militant in its message. It’s more pro-woman than pro-life, if anything.
Vanessa Hudgens stars as the 16-year-old girl in question. Her performance as Agnes “Apple” Bailey is nothing short of astounding. With short hair, gained weight and no makeup, she’s almost unrecognizable in the role. Hudgens has now completely shed the High School Musical image that made her famous, after immersing herself in roles like this one and in 2013’s Spring Breakers. Her performance is about the only surprising thing about Shelter, though.
Apple is a runaway foster kid who has been in 10 different homes in 12 years. The film begins with Apple running away from her abusive, drug-addled mother (Rosario Dawson) after learning that she is pregnant. She tries going to her father (Brendan Fraser) for help, but he rejects her and tries to get her to have an abortion. Apple refuses and tries to make it on her own.
When she ends up in the hospital after a car crash, Apple meets Father Frank McCarthy (James Earl Jones). As the hospital chaplain, McCarthy is the first person to show any interest in Apple as a person. Jones doesn’t do anything except deliver dialogue in his calm, fatherly demeanor we’ve all come to expect, and he fits the role well. McCarthy wants to help Apple by taking her to a women’s’ shelter run by Kathy DiFiore (Ann Dowd), who was once in Apple’s shoes. Once she goes to the shelter, Apple’s life begins to turn around.
The rest of the film is about how Apple confronts the demons of her past as she prepares to have her baby. All of these elements feel like parts of other movies that have been made before, but the production value is better than most inspirational films, and Hudgens makes Apple a believable person instead of just another teenage statistic.
Lots of critics have commented about the film’s Christian pro-life message and how it might be a deterrent for some people. That may be true, but the pro-life message isn’t slapped in the audience’s face. If anything, Apple’s decision to keep her baby seems like just another way to defy her parents. This is more of a film about a girl rising above her circumstances than it is about anything political.
The “true story” aspect draws on DiFiore’s experiences running the Several Sources Shelter, a women’s shelter in New Jersey that is still running. Much of the film revolves around how this environment helped Apple throughout her pregnancy, and the script treats all of these teenage mothers as human beings instead of case studies.
Verdict: Box Office, if only to see Hudgens’s performance. This film could easily have turned into a soap opera, but Hudgens keeps it grounded. And there’s not really a whole lot of inspirational films out there right now.
Jake Harris is a senior journalism major at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, Texas. Follow him on Twitter.