Gimme Shelter – a script let down

2 stars out of 4

Every single aspect of a film works in tandem with one pivotal hinge: the screenplay.

If the screenplay isn’t on point, only a fraction of the film’s potential is achieved, no matter how great the other aspects may be.  Gimme Shelter, an indie drama from rising filmmaker Ron Krauss based loosely on a true story, falls victim to this truth in every way.  Strong direction and a first-rate ensemble work hard to mine the dramatic gold behind an intriguing story concept.  But their efforts are tragically fruitless due to an absolutely bonkers script.

Sixteen-year old Agnes “Apple” Bailey (Vanessa Hudgens) lives with her drug addict mother June (Rosario Dawson) in their rundown home in New Jersey.  She decides to run away to find her estranged father Tom (Brendan Fraser) to seek help from his family after discovering she is pregnant.

MV5BMTg0MzMyMjYxMV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNDYzMTc2MDE@._V1_SX640_SY720_Following particularly cold treatment from Tom’s wife Joanna (in a bizarre performance from Stephanie Szostak) and well-meant but tactless coercion from Tom to abort the baby, Apple runs away again, only to find herself in the hospital after a horrible accident.  The kind hospital chaplain Father McCarthy (James Earl Jones) guides Apple to a home for pregnant teens, and she soon finds herself living under the loving care of founder Kathy (Ann Dowd) until Apple’s mother returns looking for her and the welfare check she has sorely missed.

Kudos to Ron Krauss for his assured direction of this piece.  The pace is swift and hurried at the start, reflecting Apple’s panic and constant dread, and then subtly slows down as her life starts to come together.  Krauss shows skill with environment as well, creating an entire character out of New Jersey itself.  His eye for detail is very particular, showing strength in the destitute locations and weakness in the more posh areas (Tom’s home could have gone a little less Real Housewives).

The film’s best usage of production design appears in the young mothers’ home, which shouldn’t come as a surprise, considering he apparently shot in the actual home the story is based on.  And Krauss clearly values chemistry and connection.  His long takes allow the actors to really flex their dramatic muscles and explore, and thankfully, most of the cast appears to take this as a license to kill.

Again though, Krauss’ inspired direction is completely offset by the script.  Some dialogue doesn’t even attempt to mask its clearly expositional purpose and characters have no arc to them whatsoever because they continually make decisions that contradict any previously established details.

A few plot points are also entirely contrived and occasionally don’t even make sense (Is Joanna really going to leave Apple at the hospital and think she can get away with it when Apple inevitably walks right back home?).

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A little too much emoting for James Earl Jones. (Publicity photo)

What works best in this script are the details we don’t know about, the history that we continue to wonder about these characters and how it has made them who they are today.  This air of mystery could have been expanded upon a bit more by Krauss to make the story less hardened and moralistic.  Though there is no getting around a structure-less narrative, the actors still do their best with what they are given, and many succeed in spades.

Vanessa Hudgens has clearly gone above and beyond to create this character, and she must be commended for her stupendous performance.  Her Apple is damaged and defensive, all the way down to her unique physical characterization.  Brendan Fraser (who is back, by the way) gives a contemplative, quiet performance outside of anything we have seen from him before.  He is let down by the script’s off-kilter character arc, but he performs admirably under the circumstances.

The reliable Rosario Dawson does some of her best work yet here, with laser focus and subtle shading behind every single line she utters.  And the sorely underrated Ann Dowd creates an organic, impassioned portrayal of a woman who clearly has more skeletons in her closet than we know.

The only odd duck here is James Earl Jones, who seems to have put his stage actor hat on instead of his screen actor hat, over-emoting continuously.  A very big shout out to the ensemble of actresses who play the young mothers/mothers-to-be, whose incredible chemistry nearly steals the movie.

“Almost, but not even close.”  The cast does expert work under Krauss’ careful hand, but lack of narrative structure, strikingly poor dialogue, and a general lack of focus drags this potentially moving drama down to after-school special territory.  Reportedly Krauss originally meant to film a documentary about the real Kathy and the girls living in her home and later decided to shift gears to do a fiction piece.  Perhaps he should follow his gut next time.