By Cary Darling
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
---- — Vanessa Hudgens is running away from her G-rated, “High School Musical” past so quickly she might have Usain Bolt asking “What’s the hurry?”
But the problem with speed is that you always don’t look where you’re going.
That’s how, if you’re Hudgens, you’ll ended up in steampunk dreck like Zack Snyder’s “Sucker Punch” and Harmony Korine’s deliriously enjoyable girls-gone-bad shindig, “Spring Breakers.”
Now she lands in “Gimme Shelter,” where she still gets to play a wild child — this time a tattooed and pierced pregnant 16-year-old runaway with a violent prostitute mom — but it’s in the context of a more family-friendly, afterschool special-style cautionary tale. As a vehicle for the young actress, “Gimme Shelter” works; she is by far the best thing about it.
Based loosely on the work of Kathy Difiore, a New Jersey woman who opened her door to homeless pregnant teens and founded the Several Sources Shelter, the film offers little deviation from where a movie like this might be expected to go. Agnes, aka Apple (Hudgens), is a sullen, angry teenager who escapes from her psychotic mother (Rosario Dawson) and finds herself on the streets in search of her birth father (Brendan Fraser). He’s a successful Wall Street exec with a huge house, a couple of well-scrubbed kids. HE also has a pinched, uptight wife (Stephanie Szostak) who’s not in the mood to be stepmother to a child from her husband’s past — especially one who is soon to be a mom herself.
Apple is taken to a clinic to deal with her situation — though the word “abortion” is never uttered — but she has second thoughts about the procedure and runs away again. This time, she ends up crossing paths with a priest (James Earl Jones) and then Difiore (Ann Dowd, who was so wonderful in the 2012 film “Compliance”).
Hudgens captures both the defiance and fear of a girl at this life crossroads. Her performance elevates what’s often a trite and heavy-handed script. There are a couple of noteworthy scenes, as when Apple and other residents of the shelter break into the office and read what’s in their files. It’s revealing and touching without being histrionic.
Dawson, on the other hand, comes across like something out of a horror movie, a screaming banshee of a junkie straight out of central casting. Plus, the option that’s offered Apple at the end is not something that would be available to most in her position so it feels like a bit of a cheat, even if it did happen in real life.
Writer/director Ron Krauss clearly has good intentions. He spent a year at Difiore’s shelter doing research and originally had planned to make a documentary about Difiore and her mission. Then he changed his mind and decided to distill what he’d seen into a drama.
That’s too bad. Seeing how Difiore actually works with and inspires these young women — and how her Catholicism shapes her outlook — might have been more involving than this fictionalized hard-luck story.
But for Hudgens, she chose well this time.