Many films push a hidden agenda of some kind, but Ronald Krauss’s “Gimme Shelter” — a teen-pregnancy drama which combines elements of “Juno” (2007) and “Precious” (2009) — at least makes its message obvious. Though it begins as a realistic look at urban pathology, with urchin-like Agnes “Apple” Bailey (Vanessa Hudgens) fleeing a brothel pursued by demonic whores, it soon settles into an anti-abortion polemic. Nothing wrong with that — some of the greatest films have been propaganda, and the story Krauss tells is affecting, provocative, and true (or is at least, as the press notes claim, a composite of true stories). But it is unlikely to convert the unconverted, in part because of its uneven performances, but mostly because it raises more questions than it answers.
One question it does answer is whether Vanessa Hudgens is an erratic actress. (Yes.) Fresh from Harmony Korine’s transgressive “Spring Breakers” (2012), the former star of the Disney Channel’s “High School Musical” seems to be searching for an acting identity and, in the process, is revealing her limited talent. Declaring in interviews that as Apple she wanted to look “as ugly as possible,” she has chopped off her hair; added piercings, tattoos, and acne; gained weight; donned hobo clothes, and looks a little like Dondi, the war orphan in the comic strip. Mission accomplished, Vanessa.
Unfortunately, she also tries to talk tough by spitting out words as if she had just been anesthetized for oral surgery. And the dialogue doesn’t do her any favors — it consists mostly of angry denunciations of the state social service agencies (take that, big government) that have placed her in one abusive foster home after another, and more angry denunciations of her Wall Street millionaire father, Tom Fitzpatrick (Brendan Fraser, in the film’s best performance), who abandoned her and her crazy mother, June (Rosario Dawson, acting mostly with her discolored fake teeth), to obey his family’s wishes and go to college. Guilt-stricken, Tom agrees to take Apple in, but when she turns out to be pregnant, Tom’s snobby wife, Joanna (Stephanie Szostak), insists that the 16-year-old have an abortion.
Here is where polemics and credible psychology come in conflict. All it takes is one glimpse at the smudgy image in her ultrasound to convince Apple to abandon a future of wealth and privilege. Penniless and alone, she runs into the street, steals a pimp’s SUV, gets in an accident, and ends up in the hospital where kindly Father McCarthy (James Earl Jones) pays a visit. He tells her about a special shelter for pregnant teenagers in her predicament, and after some tough-girl resistance, Apple agrees to go.
Based on Kathy DiFiore’s privately funded Several Sources Shelters (Krauss originally planned to make a documentary about the organization), the place turns out to be an idyllic retreat, a Neverland of happy, formerly abused teenage girls either pregnant or toting well-behaved infants. As depicted by Ann Dowd, Kathy comes off as tough but compassionate, a woman who was homeless and has since dedicated herself to providing shelter to troubled pregnant teenagers who have decided to keep their babies.
A noble cause and an admirable crusader. But what happens when these girls get older? Is it like “Short Term 12” and they get kicked out when they turn a certain age? As a Catholic-endorsed organization, do they seek to convert the non-Catholics who stay there? And though one of the oft-stated purposes of the place is to offer the girls opportunities, none of them seem engaged in schoolwork or in learning useful skills. Nor does there seem much discussion of what happens if the girls do get a job. Who pays for child care?
“Gimme Shelter” is sometimes moving and inspiring, but you have to wonder: Though Kathy and her movement give teenagers shelter, do they give them a life?