Despite its failings and general wobbly unevenness, Gimme Shelter immediately wins props and points for the importance of its mission and the rarity of its subject: the struggles and angst of unwed pregnant teens without socioeconomic means to deal with the situation. Adding considerable voltage to the story is its literal ring of truth. Gimme Shelter (no relation to the Rolling Stones tune) was inspired by, and essentially tells the story of, an actual New Jersey home for unwed mothers with no place else to turn, intrepidly founded and run by a compassionate Catholic woman, Kathy DiFiore.
We meet our adolescent, unexpectedly expecting heroine, Agnes (in a commanding performance by Vanessa Hudgens) as she is escaping inner-city life with her drug-den mother (Rosario Dawson) and tracking down her wealthy father she has never met (Brendan Fraser, the cast’s weak link) in a New Jersey mansion. Various twists of nasty fates lead her to the shelter and a sense of “family” she has never before known.
As the hardscrabble, drug-addled mother of our protagonist, Dawson is grittily awesome. She has a scene-stealing intensity as a bitter, volatile, and unfit parent who fights to retain custody of her long-suffering daughter, partly enticed by the added welfare bonus of a new baby. In a painfully poignant mid-film mother-and-daughter scene, Dawson’s character summarily unveils the ugly and tender sides of her story, from her own harsh upbringing and fleeting maternal instinct to new, cynical ulterior motives for mother-daughter bonding.
This is a film in which a sense of an in-house, pro-life dramatic agenda can compromise the artistic integrity of the project and where incidental parts — such as that dizzyingly potent mother-daughter scene — carry a weight stronger than the whole. In another memorable example, suddenly, in the midst of the film’s alternately stilted and flowing drama, we are struck by a single powerful shot: a deep focus shot of a tense encounter in which four key characters — Agnes; her wildcat mother; her belatedly concerned, affluent father; and shelter-keeping surrogate mother — linger in a telling showdown.
Even if Gimme Shelter doesn’t find the consistent cinematic groove of, say, the similar Precious, the positives make it worth the effort and well worth checking out.