By Steve Persall
Times Movie Critic
Vanessa Hudgens is the lone Spring Breakers nymphet who seems genuinely interested in becoming a good actor. Not just a pop-singing trendsetter moonlighting, but a serious thespian, unfettered by vanity.
It's obvious in her role choices, grittier than usual for pop princesses, now including Gimme Shelter, based on true stories of unwed mothers sheltered by Kathy DiFiore, a domestic abuse survivor herself. Hudgens plays teenager Agnes "Apple" Bailey, a character inspired by several of DiFiore's charges. Apple is the troubled result of a youthful fling between a prostitute named June (Rosario Dawson) and a future Wall Street broker (Brendan Fraser).
Apple can't fit into her father's affluent life and doesn't wish to follow in her mother's footsteps. Her only alternative to living on the streets is the shelter run by DiFiore, played by Ann Dowd. It's disappointing that DiFiore is a bit player in her own story; Gimme Shelter exists less as a social lesson than as a wobbly showcase for Hudgens' still-developing skills.
Apple is a meatier role than Hudgens' chops can chew but she's constantly watchable, trying too hard to keep it real. Hacking off her hair on-camera is the first step we're meant to consider brave, along with charity-bin clothing, Dumpster dining and painted dark circles under her eyes. It's a far cry from Hudgens in High School Musical, and several levels of cool below doing snuggle-drugs with James Franco on St. Pete Beach.
Writer-director Ron Krauss presents Apple's story in no-frills fashion, surrounding Hudgens with dependable actors who aren't used well enough. Dawson is raw and ready to burn a hole in the screen as a desperate drug addict interested in her daughter only for the welfare checks. You can sense her wanting to freak out more but she's pulled out only to spoil special occasions, when Apple takes steps in the right direction.
Although not a faith-based film in the current fashion, Gimme Shelter lurches toward Christian redemption more than secular cinema typically does. The sermons go down easily with James Earl Jones delivering them in his soothing, sonorous voice, as a hospital priest pointing Apple toward the light. That spiritual slant, combined with the story's decidedly pro-life perspective after Apple learns she's pregnant, could make Gimme Shelter a youth ministry event of sorts.
Which would be ironic for its star attraction after Spring Breakers set such bad examples for impressionable young people. Hudgens hasn't lived down — or up to — that pop cinema signpost with Gimme Shelter but she's determined to make it happen.
Steve Persall can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall on Twitter.