Former Disney Channel standout Vanessa Hudgens shed her wholesome persona by starring in 2013’s Spring Breakers, a film swimming in boorish behavior.
She’s just the latest child star eager to move on to more adult roles, but she does so far better in the new drama Gimme Shelter. It’s that rare pro-life movie, a story of a young woman who opts against ending her pregnancy despite what the culture at large suggests.
Hudgens plays Apple, a pregnant teen with no home, no stable family and few hopes for even a modestly happy life.
She runs away from her drug-addicted mama (Rosario Dawson, playing her one-note role with zeal) and tracks down her biological dad. Tom (Brendan Fraser) is a portrait of upper middle class success, and he doesn’t know what to do when Apple knocks on his door.
Their relationship, and how Apple blossoms as a mother-to-be, proves a sly combination of old-fashioned storytelling and faith-based drama. Apple’s support team includes an avuncular priest (James Earl Jones) and a home for unwed moms run by the church. Both elements are handled delicately, their spiritual underpinnings presented without apology but not overstated. Jones in particular provides considerable gravitas, giving his small role the breadth and scope of a much larger character sketch.
Hudgens isn’t perfect in Gimme Shelter, but she shows enough range and grit to promise a gentle transition to more serious work. Her Apple is impressively wounded, and even when Hudgens goes through the rebellious motions the actress gives Apple an innate intelligence to guide the way.
Shelter’s film’s script falls back on some predictable confrontations, the kind associated with older, small screen fare. Apple’s journey, while based on a true story, has some of the roughest edges buffed away for our consideration. Some supporting roles, including Tom’s wife (Stephanie Szostak) demand fleshing out to avoid cliches.
Gimme Shelter makes no mystery of its goals. Tug our heartstrings, make us consider the power of faith and establish its young lead as an actress of consequence. Despite its flaws, the film succeeds on all three levels.