You can say this for the Disney teen machine: They sure know how to pick 'em.
Vanessa Hudgens was 17 when High School Musical made her famous, the tail end of a generation of Mouseketeers that included her contemporaries Zac Efron, Miley Cyrus, and Selena Gomez, and her elders Justin Timberlake, Hilary Duff, Britney Spears, Keri Russell, Christina Aguilera, Shia LaBeouf, and Ryan Gosling.
If you're keeping score, her class' graduation rate to a grown-up career is more than 70 percent, just above its post-Mouse nudity percentile. (Thanks for that recent boost, LaBeouf!) Timberlake has worked with David Fincher and the Coen brothers. Gosling has glowered in every art-house movie that can afford his day rate. Efron is poised to do great work, and, well, LaBeouf seems determined to try (or retire). But Gimme Shelter, a hard-to-love heartwarmer about a pregnant runaway teen, argues that Hudgens will be anointed valedictorian.
Hudgens convincingly chops nine years — nine! — off her age to play 16-year-old Agnes, AKA Apple, a kid whose drug addict mom (Rosario Dawson with a gnarly set of yellow teeth) pitched her into ten foster homes before seventh grade. Writer-director Ronald Krauss keeps his camera in Hudgens' face like he's looking for a fight, but she's still unrecognizable: hair brutally hacked to her ears, face pocked with piercings, body thickened with an extra 15 pounds, neck marred with a too-shiny tribal tattoo, and a feral anger in her eyes like a dog that's been beaten since birth.
Apple has tipped over from victim to urchin, that doomed distinction where everyone — cab drivers, store clerks, social workers — can tell she's in trouble, but no one thinks she's worth their help. And Hudgens shuns sympathy, hunching herself into a ball, eating like an animal, and refusing to speak until her rage comes out in a howl. She's hard to like and harder to trust, but Hudgens makes us feel the desperation of having zero impulse control — she's a kid who's so unused to options she can't think more than five minutes into the future.
After a fistfight with her mother, Apple flees to find her father (Brendan Fraser), a Wall Street tycoon and father of two (surprise: three!) who hasn't thought of her since his own unprotected teenage fling. Will Apple's stained gray sweatshirt fit in with his pressed khakis? Pshaw. She can't knock on the back door of his New Jersey McMansion without being arrested. And even when he gets her out of handcuffs, she's too resentful to smile and play nice.
Dad and his prim wife (Stephanie Szostak) reluctantly agree to take her in. Even more reluctant, we steel ourselves for a fish-out-of-water dramedy where Apple sets off smoke detectors and suffers his "real" kids whining that she smells. That all happens. But Krauss mercifully (for us) makes Apple's life even worse. These nice, clean, rich saviors demand she get an abortion. Apple votes no. Coos Szostak: "It's not about what you want, honey."
Give Krauss credit for saying the word "abortion," something Judd Apatow didn't dare in Knocked Up. But when Apple and her fetus flee the clinic, Krauss can't possibly ask us to agree that Hudgens' violent dumpster-diver would make a fit parent. But he does. And here's where we're asked to exhale, unclench, and drop the politics to see Gimme Shelter as the story of one girl and not a prescription for a nation.
Or really, it's the story of the real-life woman behind the girl: Kathy DiFiore, a former abused wife and homeless mom who turned her house into a shelter for pregnant teenage girls. DiFiore, played with empathy and steel by Anne Dowd (Compliance), gave Krauss her name and her blessing to make the film and padded the cast with her residents and their adorable babies. She even let Krauss move in for a year to research his script. She's the hero of Gimme Shelter, and Hudgens' Apple is just the star — make that the clay that DiFiore shapes with empathy and patience.
Krauss isn't subtle. Gimme Shelter is literally bible-thumping, thanks mainly to James Earl Jones' turn as a kindly priest who's forever pressing Apple to pick up the Good Book and discover her role in God's plan. At least when DiFiore drags her and the girls to church, Krauss allows them to wonder uncomfortably if they're being paraded for dollars.
At best, he treats religion as correlation, not causation: Apple's hard-fought personal growth has nothing to do with the Ten Commandments and everything to do with her seven teen-mom roommates who feel like the only people on earth who understand her struggles.
We could do without Apple's style upgrade from sweats to pretty dresses, and the baby montage over the credits feels like a pro-life ad campaign. But though the arc of the film is as saccharine as a Precious Moments figurine — and it'll play that way for audiences who can't be bothered to look closer — Hudgens is too honest to believe in simple, happy endings. Squint closer at this broken doll and she's still furtively flipping the world the finger.