Gimme Shelter has a few obstacles to overcome. First, it's a social-problem pic, a genre that's always a potential minefield of generalization and mawkishness — in this case the chronicle of an unwanted, homeless, pregnant, sixteen-year-old girl named Apple Bailey (played by Vanessa Hudgens from Spring Breakers, Machete Kills, and Sucker Punch), and how she makes her way in a cruel world against all odds.
Secondly and even more troubling, the movie's publicity uses the word "inspiring" in the very first sentence of its synopsis. Savvy film fans know that anything advertising itself as inspirational is just asking for trouble. One person's inspiration is invariably another person's cue to yawn and roll the eyes, especially when it concerns lonely waifs suffering the slings and arrows. Our Apple is thus doubly doomed. But she perseveres, and so does writer-director Ron Krauss.
After escaping under duress from the combination motel/crack house where her mother June (Rosario Dawson) is also an inmate, Apple makes her way to the home of the father she has never met, Tom Fitzpatrick (Brendan Fraser), who happens to be a Wall Street financial exec living in a palatial, gated McMansion in suburban New Jersey. Apple sneaks under the gate, gets rousted by security guards, and is delivered to her stunned biological dad and his appalled wife (Stephanie Szostak). Apple's "new" family is almost impossibly white-bread and the reunion is rocky in the extreme, a collision of underclass and upperclass with hysterical yelling to match. Tom is willing to take in Apple but insists that she get an abortion. Apple resists, violently. Emotions pop out like bedsprings from a musty mattress.
Apple continues to persevere. Filmmaker Krauss teases a deceptively nuanced performance out of Hudgens, a 28-year-old actress whose career has been spent playing typical teens, with a recent detour into outlaw sluttiness. Apple enters the movie as a wild child, but one on a mission to take control of her life on her terms. (The scenario bears a resemblance to Krauss' 2010 Amexica, a story of human trafficking.) But even as the dreaded inspiration insinuates itself into the plot, Apple's sullenness never quite goes away. Betrayed and undervalued all her life, she's never quite ready to trust anyone else, an apprehension that leaks out of the character in every single scene.
As in many lost-child stories, the mother plays a decisive role. Dawson pulls out all the stops as crack ho June, a scummy-teethed harpy who hounds her daughter through every step of her redemption, clinging to her for the extra welfare money that will come with the baby. Dawson puts on a frightening show but we're ultimately unworried. If Precious could will herself into the straight life, so can Apple — that's the inspirational quotient at work.
Yet despite the presence of a kindly Roman Catholic priest (James Earl Jones) and church social worker (Ann Dowd), and a familiar-looking crowd of fellow sufferers, Hudgens' Apple does almost all the heavy lifting herself. Skeptics may or may not be swayed by her performance. To us, there are echoes of Robert Bresson's Mouchette or Agnès Varda's Vagabond — imagine Gimme Shelter in French and the setting in the financially strapped Europe of the Dardenne brothers — in Apple's dogged refusal to accept defeat. That is to say, Hudgens and her director, practically all by themselves, manage to overcome their obstacles in the simplest, most effective way of all, with classic melodramatic role-playing.
Of course, it's terrific that Apple's long-lost father is a wealthy businessman eager to make up with his offspring. What if he were a truck driver, or a homeless man? What if Apple's story arc had taken her from motel hell to a father-daughter-granddaughter reunion in a cardboard carton under a bridge? Not many audiences would pay to see that. "Inspiring" might yet turn out to be another word for "rich, guilty daddy." Nobody's perfect.