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‘Gimme Shelter’: Gritty proof that Vanessa Hudgens can act

‘GIMME SHELTER’ ★★★

“Apple” Bailey | Vanessa Hudgens

Frank McCarthy | James Earl Jones

June Bailey | Rosario Dawson

Kathy DiFiore | Ann Dowd

Tom Fitzpatrick | Brendan Fraser

Roadside Attractions presents a film written and directed by Ronald Krauss. Running time: 100 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for mature thematic material involving mistreatment, some drug content, violence and language, all concerning teens). Opens Jan. 24 at local theaters.

Updated: February 25, 2014 6:11AM



Sometimes we criticize actors for playing the same type of character in movie after movie, and sometimes we criticize actors for trying to branch out instead of giving fans what they want.

We’re the worst.

Nearly every story I’ve seen about Vanessa Hudgens’ role in “Gimme Shelter” mentions how different it is from her “High School Musical” days.

Well. Yes. Playing a scholastic whiz who falls in love during a karaoke number in a TV-G Disney production and playing a pregnant teenager who runs away from her drug-addicted mother in a gritty theatrical release = different.

But given that Hudgens’ recent credits include “Machete Kills,” “The Frozen Ground,” “Spring Breakers” and “Sucker Punch,” it’s safe to say her “High School Musical” days are a thing of the past. Let’s move on.

In “Gimme Shelter,” writer-director Ronald Krauss and a cast that also includes James Earl Jones, Rosario Dawson and Brendan Fraser elevate some sobering but fairly standard after-school special material to the next level.

We’re told the film is “based on the inspiring true story,” but no matter what percentage is actually faithful to real-life events, the depressing reality is that tens if not hundreds of thousands of teenage girls can relate to this experience.

Hudgens plays Agnes “Apple” Bailey, an angry, troubled teen who chops off her hair and literally runs away from her monstrously abusive, drug-addicted mother June.

(Even though we’re told June was a teenager when she gave birth to Apple, it’s a stretch for the 34-year-old Rosario Dawson and the 25-year-old Hudgens — they were 32 and 23, respectively, when the film was shot — to play mother and daughter. But they’re convincing enough.)

Looking so grimy and street-tough she’s mistaken a few times for a boy, Apple makes her way from the New Jersey projects to an idyllic, gated community. This is where her biological father, Tom Fitzpatrick (Brendan Fraser), now a successful Wall Street broker, lives with his snooty French wife and their two spoiled-rotten children.

Fraser gives one of his better performances as Tom, who’s more than the caricature Apple believes him to be. The more we learn of his backstory, the more we understand why he was never in Apple’s life.

Of course, if Apple got cleaned up, was accepted by Tom’s new family, enrolled in the local high school and fell in love at a karaoke contest, we wouldn’t have much of a movie. (Or at least we’d have a very stupid prequel of sorts to “High School Musical.”) Things go from messy to disastrous for Apple, who realizes she’s pregnant, commits some serious crimes and nearly gets killed.

Enter Jones as a chaplain who gives Apple some reading material — the Bible — and arranges for Apple to live at a shelter for
pregnant teens run by Kathy DiFiore (the invaluable character actress Ann Dowd), who has devoted her life to helping young women in trouble.

Hudgens does strong work playing a girl who has spent the first 16 years of her life suffering abuse at the hands of her mother, resenting her absentee father and loathing herself. Once in a while there’s a bit too much snarl and street accent in the line readings, but over all this is further indication Hudgens is carving out an interesting, productive career path as a film actress.

In a relatively small role that could have been pure stereotype, an almost unrecognizable Dawson is convincingly menacing and just bat-bleep crazy as Apple’s sicko mother. And in a couple of late scenes, Fraser delivers perhaps the most moving work he’s ever done.

Writer-director Krauss embraces the spiritual elements of this story without turning it into a heavy-handed religious lecture.

“Gimme Shelter” is a movie about a pregnant teenager and in which men and women of faith leave the judging to the higher power while focusing on the true Christian calling of helping those most in need of it. Amen to that.

Email: rroeper@suntimes.com

Twitter: @richardroeper



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