Based on a true story, Gimme Shelter shines a light on a grim world where the foster care system, homelessness, drug abuse, and teen pregnancy collide. Vanessa Hudgens stars as Apple, who finally flees her drug addict mother (Rosario Dawson) to reconnect with her Wall Street father (Brendan Fraser), only to fall back through the cracks again. Dealing with her history of abuse, drugs, and upbringing, we’re forced to consider what judgments we make about people based on what we stereotypically expect of them, without ever considering what our own privilege allows us.
Hudgens is fantastic. In the opening scene, she hacks off her long hair, symbolizing the change that is about to come. Throughout the film, she presents us with a figure of someone pushed into adulthood by the adults who abdicated their responsibility, but who is ultimately a child longing to explore a real life, not the poor hand she’s been dealt. Apple, who is based on the experiences of the young women in the real-world Several Sources Shelter, is multi-faceted, both wanting to change and stuck with the anger she’s cultivated to keep herself alive.
Anger isn’t the only thing that threatens to keep Apple “stuck.” Dawson’s mother-figure, June, reveals to Apple that Apple is her, dealing with teen pregnancy, isolation, and homelessness, but it’s not compassion: it’s the raw desire to hold Apple down because June was held down, too. Naturally, this isn’t just a homelessness issue, but a familial problem that occurs in many family systems, even churches. But it’s a sickness, a clinging, that Apple can’t break through without help.
Enter Father McCarthy (James Earl Jones) who accepts Apple’s anger, but tells her that God has a plan for her, even in the midst of her rejection of God (Jeremiah 29:11 gets some play here). But it’s the shelter, run by real-life homeless woman-turned-savior of the homeless, Kathy DiFiore, that puts Apple in a position to actually land safely, reset her perspective, and relaunch. Not all of the women in the shelter want what
“All of us like sheep have gone astray,” quotes McCarthy at one point (Isaiah 53:6) to Apple. It’s his attempt to comfort Apple, that she didn’t cause what has happened to her, that there is hope. But it’s also a reminder to us that we have gone astray, too. We can’t judge Apple or any of these women or June if we’re going to recognize that we’ve made poor decisions and had others hurt us (which we have to deal with, too) and that we can’t break ourselves out of those habits on our own. The greatest delusions that we can see here are that a) we don’t have any struggles or that b) when we do struggle, we can save ourselves.
Ultimately, the storyline for Apple changes when she chooses to let go of the anger, the expectation that she can’t trust anyone, to find hope in the midst of real community. I believe that church at its finest operates like recovery, like Alcoholics Anonymous, when we acknowledge that there is a power greater than ourselves and that without help, we will perpetually be ’stuck.’ Apple is able to break the cycle that she’s fallen into, that she could’ve perpetuated, started by her biological parents and her own pregnancy, of broken families and broken hearts. She breaks through because she is seen for the first time, by McCarthy, by DiFiore, and in the process, she begins to see that she is seen by God. She stops “dancing with her demons,” and looking for a new place, a new life, to call her own.
Yes, this is a true story, and yes, Hudgens is movie star material. But Ron Krauss’ work in exploring the lives of these women has allowed him to write and direct a movie that speaks to their experience and the transformative power of real-world family, not trite or saccharine, in the lives of broken down, busted up people who don’t think they have hope. Given my experience in college working in a shelter for homeless women and their children, this story is the real deal and the cast nailed it.
See this movie. Get involved. Make a difference.
“See you suddenly.”
Also published on Hollywood Jesus.