MRR Review: "Gimme Shelter"

Photo Credit: Roadside Attractions

Rating: PG-13
Length: 100 minutes
Release Date: January 24, 2014
Directed by: Ron Krauss
Genre: Drama

In Ron Krauss's film "Gimme Shelter," Vanessa Hudgens of "High School Musical" fame moves beyond her typical All-American, "girl next door" roles to play Agnes, an abused and trouble teen who finds herself pregnant and living in a shelter. Intended as an inspirational film, producer and screenwriter Ron Krauss actually lived in several homeless shelters for teens while writing the movie. Several scenes in the movie were also filmed inside those shelters, and, according to Krauss, some of the extras used in the film are actual young mothers and their infants.

The use of real facilities and shelter residents lends "Gimme Shelter" a gritty authenticity that almost makes the film seem more like a documentary. The film is one of deliberate contrasts. Rosario Dawson plays June, Agnes's drug-abusing, serial-dating mother. June is no better at choosing the men in her life than she is at making choices regarding her daughter's well-being, which ultimately drives Agnes to flee. However, audiences get a glimpse of the other parenting extreme when Agnes goes to live with her well-to-do father, played by Brendan Fraser, and her stepmother. As chaotic as her mother's house was, Agnes finds her father's house to be too orderly. This illustrates that homelessness is not exclusive to members of a specific class. There are people living in shelters who hail from affluent backgrounds, as well as those who have escaped poverty and/or abuse.

Ultimately, Agnes must learn how to put her frustration about her past behind her in order to move forward as a young mother. In this regard, "Gimme Shelter" is as much about Agnes as it is about the plight of the individuals attempting to assist young homeless women like Agnes, and the challenges those individuals face as they attempt to convince teenagers to put their faith in the hands of people who want to help them improve their situations. Ultimately, the center of Agnes's struggle--her unborn child--becomes the driving force in her decision to turn her life around.

The story is inspired by Kathy DiFiore, who first opened her home to pregnant teens in the early 1980s. DiFiore's story made headlines when she was fined by New Jersey in 1984 for lacking the proper license to run a boarding house. DiFiore founded Several Sources Shelters, and the idea came to her after Mother Teresa wrote a plea on her behalf and New Jersey granted DiFiore permission to once again begin taking in homeless, expectant teens. Several Sources Shelters claims to have saved over 20,000 babies since its inception, and the primary message of the movie is clearly that, even in the worst of circumstances, there is hope for children. Krauss himself makes it very clear that "Gimme Shelter" is a pro-life tale. But rather than relying on preachy dogma, "Gimme Shelter" draws audiences into the world of the homeless by examining the complexities involved in pulling oneself up from rock bottom. In doing so, the film emphasizes that hope and will are the only things that cannot be shattered by hitting rock bottom, and argues that people sometimes exhibit the most clarity in the face of some of life's most difficult decisions. It is a message that is sure to resonate with viewers regardless of their position on the pro-life debate.

Both the setting and message of the movie are timely. The impoverished of America have been the targets of rather harsh criticism in recent years, and are stereotyped as lazy, apathetic people who refuse to work. "Gimme Shelter" presents a very compelling counter-argument in the form of young girls who are down on their luck for a variety of reasons, care very much about their lives and want nothing more than to make something of themselves. Such an extreme level of humanity is, no doubt, a direct reflection of Krauss's having written the script while living among his subjects. Doing so was a commitment on Krauss's part that paid off in the form of a story that is touching and believable.

Hudgens is refreshingly gritty in this movie. She proves the depth of her acting skills in this break from the bubblegum teen roles she usually plays. Rosario Dawson is equally moving as Hudgens' mom, and James Earl Jones is touching and compassionate as the chaplain who assists Hudgens in finding a shelter.

"Gimme Shelter" is undeniably spiritual in tone, but it is not a didactic film for a limited audience. The film's spirituality is subtle, and it is used to project a message of hope, which can be understood and appreciated by virtually anyone.

Rating: 3 out of 5