With directing credits like "Alien Hunter" and "Rave" it might be difficult to expect much from the filmmaker’s seventh film, but relative unknown Ron Krauss startles with "Gimme Shelter." While it’s not a perfect film, this is a hard-hitting and gripping film about foster care, teen pregnancy, and abandonment.
Starring "High School Musical" vet Vanessa Hudgens in a career-changing performance, the film revolves around Apple (Hudgens) a 16-year old "problem child" who was taken from her drug-addicted mother (Rosario Dawson) at a young age, put through an abusive foster care system, then released back to her mother’s care only to be emotionally and physically tormented. Apple leaves to seek out the father she never knew (Brendan Fraser), who is a Wall Street big-shot living in an affluent part of New Jersey. But her aggressive behavior sets her father and family on edge -- not to mention she discovers she’s pregnant. As she navigates her options and finds herself in more and more trouble, she finally ends up in a place where she will learn to let go of her demons and find a family.
The first half of "Shelter" is raw and frenetic, and establishes quickly that Hudgens has pushed the pretty girl image as far away from her as possible. Looking damaged and hopeless, Hudgens peels back the layers of Apple to find an almost feral girl who is on the verge of giving up on life. Whether she is screaming at the father who offers to help her or stealing an SUV from a pimp, she has nothing left to lose anymore. All was lost long ago, and Hudgen’s vicious performance portrays this while giving the character a pin-prick of hope that someone will come through for her.
Similarly, Dawson in the supporting role of her mother is transformative. Moving swiftly from rage to manipulation, she is a frightening creation that is all too real for many children. While most of the time she is frenziedly trying to convince her daughter to do one thing or another, it is the scene where she comes face to face with the father of her child that is the most telling for her character -- and the most heartbreaking.
There are moments in the second half of the film where Hudgens is put into a home for pregnant girls where it feels a bit too much like an infomercial for such places. Ann Dowd ("Compliance") is great here, but she is saddled with a speech that comes across a bit too much like an advertisement. In addition, this section of the movie needed to be a bit more fleshed out to make Apple’s final revelation about what makes a family to have the impact it wants. But these are small complaints. The film is undeniably powerful, and I’ve found myself thinking about it long after I saw it.
Krauss could have slipped his film into melodrama, but he smartly keeps it on the gritty side. He also keeps the focus on Hudgens who is, quite honestly, what makes this film work so well. He clearly knows how to work with his actors and allows the camera to just sit with them. While Apple is fairly antagonistic for a good portion of the film, it is the quieter moments of fear and anguish that get us inside her head and heart. Not once do we feel that her acting is on the surface. The character feels lived in, and that’s not only Hudgen’s strength as an actress, but Krauss’ careful direction of her. This is as much a career-changing film for him as it is for her. And I look forward to what they both do next.