Is It Cool?: Excellence in Filmmaking
Writer/director Ronald Krauss’ first theatrically released feature film carries an unashamed Christian message about the value of life and the power of hope.
Even more importantly, he elevates the genre of “Christian message movie” into something appealing and mostly digestible for a secular audience; blurring the line between a “Christian film” and simply a good film. There are some flaws to be sure, but with an able cast and realistically unsanitized storyline, Gimme Shelter can easily be counted as a success and much-needed reference for Christian filmmakers as an example of what a positive message film can be.
Based on the inspiring true story of Kathy DiFiore’s New York City shelter for young, pregnant women, the focus is placed on Apple (played convincingly by Vanessa Hudgens in a transformative role)—a desperate sixteen year old with a shattered childhood who runs away from her abusive and drug-addicted mother (played by Rosario Dawson). Dawson gives the best performance in the film and, if the film industry were fair, should be getting awards attention. She is manipulative and vicious, but surprisingly sympathetic. She is no good for Apple; but it’s still clear she loves her in a deeply flawed way.
Apple escapes to the house of her wealthy father Tom (Brendan Fraser in generic Wall Street attire) who she had only known from a note and a picture left for her as a baby. Tom wants to help, but when he and his wife discover that Apple is pregnant, they tell her that she can only stay if she “takes care of the problem” and has an abortion.
Seeing ultrasound pictures of her baby girl is enough for Apple to refuse abortion (not a big spoiler there) and run away again. After stealing a car and crashing it, Apple wakes up in a hospital room where she is befriended by hospital chaplain Fr. Frank McCarthy. James Earl Jones plays the kind and wise Father McCarthy with a twinkle in his eye. It’s refreshing to see a positive portrayal of a priest, even as he comes across as starkly flawless. Father McCarthy convinces Apple to check out Kathy’s shelter.
Kathy DiFiore (an excellent Ann Dowd) works hard to earn Apple’s trust and meld her into the extended family—which includes about a dozen young women and a handful of babies. Naturally, Apple confronts several more hard choices on her road to adulthood.
The filmmaking craft on display is very good. The cinematography is appropriately harsh with a moody color palette and effective use of the handheld camera (never too shaky). There are a few especially cinematic long takes that allow for the actors to show off without the aid of editing. Hudgens handles most of her scenes with strength and grace; with a few missteps along the way (an inconsistent New York accent being one). She effectively demonstrates the resiliency of lived experience and the vulnerability of a scared teenager. This definitely feels like the arrival of Hudgens as a serious talent.
The film loses a little dramatic steam in the second half, and there are occasional clunky bits of dialogue that come across heavy-handed. The overall effect of the film, however, remains intact and emotionally resonant.
What’s it Saying?: Message of the Movie
The most obvious and resonant message is that every life is worth living. This is true of the baby Apple is carrying; and it’s true of Apple herself. Riding shotgun with that message is the idea that God can make crooked paths straight. Once Apple starts to believe that God had not abandoned her, she is able to move ahead with hope. And self-centeredness is chastised as Fr. McCarthy warns Apple not to make her unborn baby suffer because she is suffering.
There is also a less obvious, but much appreciate message about honesty with oneself. Apple screams at Fr. McCarthy because she can’t understand a God who has seemingly abandoned her. Only when she is able to say this openly and honestly is she capable of moving forward. When she tries to apologize to Fr. McCarthy for her anger, he very wisely tells not to apologize for her true feelings.
The Good, The Bad, The Ugly: Morality in the Movie
There is some shocking violence between mother and daughter, insults hurled, a few crass expressions, and a brief moment of immodest dress. All is safely within context, however, and never feels glorified or used simply for shock value.
At one point apple commits theft and drives recklessly out of fear and desperation. Because of the harsh reality portrayed and heavy themes, this is definitely only suitable for mature teens and adults.
That's Right. I Said It: Reviewer Comments
Great make-up job on Vanessa Hudgens (or lack thereof). She looks shockingly ordinary.
I nominate Brendan Fraser for the Worst Cinema Haircut of 2014.
Why is Fr. McCarthy never wearing his Roman collar? Odd choice.
Rosario Dawson does an awesome job playing “good cop / bad cop” at the same time—effective emotional manipulation.
Apple’s relationship with Cassie feels like a distraction.
Some unnecessarily cheesy lines made the cut.
The ending could have been much stronger.
I’m looking forward to more work from Ronald Kraus.