I decided to stream 'Gimme Shelter' one evening after noticing it on the front page of my Netflix account; I knew absolutely nothing about the story, and the name Vanessa Hudgens made me "meanly" roll my eyes a bit (in fairness, I knew almost as little about her as I did about the film; but her association with 'High School Musical' made me automatically inclined to not take her seriously). However, the plot description looked passable enough; there were no other names listed in the cast to dissuade me from watching (I approved of James Earl Jones, and felt ambivalent about Rosario Dawson and, at the time, Brendan Fraser); and, all in all, I thought the movie seemed a good bet for at least passing the time, and perhaps even for holding some Lifetime movie-ish (read: guilty pleasure) appeal.
While there were indeed some Lifetime movie-ish elements to be found, 'Gimme Shelter' turned out to be a much better film than I'd anticipated -- and a far better movie than its (mostly) negative reviews suggest.
The movie is centered around the real-life, New Jersey-based Several Sources Shelters, a Catholic-oriented service founded by a woman named Kathy DiFiore (portrayed in the movie by Ann Dowd, in a great performance), which provides shelter for homeless expectant mothers and allows them to give birth in a safe environment. The story focuses on Agnes -- or "Apple" as she's called (Hudgens) -- a fictional teen (though her story is said to be drawn from the experiences of some young women who stayed at the actual shelter) who runs from her abusive mother (Dawson) to her wealthy father (Fraser) in hopes of a better life. Apple's father, Tom, seems well-meaning but unprepared for the sudden appearance of the daughter he never knew (he also has a wife and two young children to consider); meanwhile, Apple holds some understandable resentment toward her dad for not doing anything to establish contact with her while she was growing up.
Complications arise when it's revealed that Apple is pregnant; Tom's wife basically tells Apple "have an abortion or get out" (and Tom doesn't say anything to counter this). Just before the abortion, however, Apple flees the clinic, which leads her to become homeless and eventually lands her a brief stint in the hospital. While hospitalized, she encounters a kind chaplain (Jones) who, after learning of Apple's circumstances, directs her to the Several Sources Shelters.
So, yes -- 'Gimme Shelter' is technically a "pro-life" movie (*gasp*!), if that's what one wants to label a film where the main character chooses not to have an abortion.
What 'Gimme Shelter' ISN'T, however (despite what most of its critics brushed it off as) is "propaganda": none of the characters lecture about the evils of abortion; and the characters who do push for Apple's abortion aren't portrayed as mere caricatures (actually, I'd venture to guess that many viewers would see Mrs. Fitzpatrick's initial point-of-view as an understandable one).
But the Apple character does, in fact, choose to have her baby. And while the movie doesn't try to pretend at all that this wasn't the best thing for Apple -- to me 'Gimme Shelter' seemed FAR more a celebration of life and of hope than some sinister attempt to get a pro-life message out to the unsuspecting public disguised as a movie.
I also didn't think that the film came across as "preachy" -- but that's the other big "reason" most critics gave for dismissing the movie (which I found rather annoying while reading their reviews). Yes, James Earl Jones's character reads from the Bible in one scene; he was a chaplain! Yes, the girls at the shelter attend church in another scene; it's a Catholic shelter! Some characters might even pray once or twice (*huge gasp*!); but every one of these scenes felt authentic rather than gratuitous.
In fact, I wouldn't even classify 'Gimme Shelter' as a "religious" movie -- not that it would be a bad thing if it was, but to brush off the film because some characters established as following a religion are briefly shown *practicing* that religion is just silly (and irritating).
Anyhow, the movie isn't without its faults, but I found it to be a genuinely moving and well-made film with some surprisingly good performances.
At the top of that list is Fraser -- whose understated performance as Apple's father was, to me, one of the most compelling things about the movie. Instead of coming across as "evil absent dad", Fraser makes his character sympathetic and surprisingly gentle (granted, more so in the second half of the movie; still, aside from the obvious choice of Apple, I thought that Fraser's character "Tom" showed the most growth throughout the film -- and Fraser is terrific in the role).
In fact, I enjoyed Fraser's performance in this movie so much that -- for the first time since I originally saw him in 'School Ties' 20+ years ago -- I decided to check out some of his earlier work (before this, I'd seen him in a few other movies besides 'School Ties'; but I never had much of an opinion about him one way or the other, and I'd actually kind of forgotten about him entirely before coming across 'Gimme Shelter'). While 'Furry Vengeance' and 'The Passion of Darkly Noon' made me briefly reconsider my newfound interest (and I still have zero interest in 'The Mummy' franchise) I'm glad that 'Gimme Shelter' helped me discover that "George of the Jungle" has more acting talent than I ever gave him credit for (and I actually quite like the guy now).
Also wonderful in 'Gimme Shelter' are the aforementioned Dowd, and the always-reliable Jones, both of whom seemed perfectly cast.
(Fun fact: according to an interview with director Ron Krauss, Fraser and Jones donated their salaries from this film to the Several Sources Shelters -- an anecdote that made me like both actors even more.)
As for Hudgens -- I did think that she bordered on Lifetime-y dramatic in a few scenes (and her appearance certainly took some getting used to, though she "cleans up" in the second half of the movie). But overall, she was fine as the lead.
Dawson, on the other hand, proved more difficult to watch. To be honest, I found her quite grating in her role as "June", Apple's abusive mother. But this seemed appropriate for her character, so I'm not necessarily criticizing her performance (and I even sympathized with June just a smidge in the scene where she bumped into Tom outside of the shelter and was too ashamed to walk past him in her current state... though she was still grating. Incidentally, I also thought that that particular scene was one of Dowd's/Kathy's strongest.)
Finally, regarding the cast -- for those who might care, Dascha Polanco ("Daya" from "Orange is the New Black") turns up in a very small supporting role as another pregnant young woman staying at the shelter (meaning that Polanco has played a pregnant woman at least twice now).
As far as criticism goes -- probably the thing I liked LEAST about 'Gimme Shelter' was the ending, which I have to admit kind of disappointed me. Not enough to ruin an otherwise strong film, but I felt sorry for Tom, and I questioned the plausibility of Apple's decision.
Otherwise -- the script might have had a few clichéd lines here and there (but nothing really noticeable enough to stand out or take away from the story). And as much as I liked Fraser in the movie, he looked a bit too old for his role (Fraser looked well into his 40's -- which is fine in general since he *is* in his 40's -- but it's stated that June was a teen mother and implied that Tom was college-aged at the oldest when Apple was born; so, technically, Tom should have been in his mid-30's, tops, and Fraser just doesn't look that young). Again, though, this didn't detract from the movie; and to be fair, I'm pretty sure that Tom didn't state his actual age in the letter that he wrote to Apple. (Speaking of which, I had to chuckle just a little at the photo that Tom included with the letter, which looked suspiciously like an early head shot of Fraser.)
Ultimately, minor flaws and all, I'd consider this one an unexpected gem -- and well worth a watch. (8/10)