Judge Gordon Sullivan is a homeless East High Wildcat.
Sometimes you have to leave home to find your family.
It takes a lot of guts to name a movie after a well-loved rock song, especially a classic that helped define the soundtrack of one of the more tumultuous eras in recent memory. It takes even more guts to name your movie after a rock song that also gave its name to another movie, itself a classic in the world of documentary. But that's exactly what Gimme Shelter does, and though the title resonates with the themes of the story, it has little of the energy or impact of either the Rolling Stones' famous song or the Maysles' brothers (in)famous documentary. Instead, we're offered a lukewarm drama that tries a bit too hard to impart its feel-good message. Even a standout performance from Vanessa Hudgens can save this undercooked mess of a film.
Facts of the Case
Agnes (Vanessa Hudgens, Spring Breakers) isn't living the good life. Stuck with her abusive, junkie mother (Rosario Dawson, Clerks 2), Agnes decides to track down her birth father (Brendan Fraser, Encino Man) who she discovers is living the good life in the Jersey suburbs. When Agnes discovers she's pregnant, her life spirals out of control, leading her first to the streets and then to redemption.
One of my favorite definitions of art is that it's something that's "made in ignorance of what it is." The idea is that an artist sets out to make something, say a film, but must learn through the process what it is that's being made. The alternative is to follow a plan, which doesn't result in art but a kind of manufactured good. I often think of that definition of art when I'm confronted with a film like Gimme Shelter, which seems much more like a manufactured good than a piece of art.
It all starts with a premise that's pure movie-of-the-week. We've got the rebellious teenage protagonist. We've got the abusive household, lead by the drug-addict mother. We've got the alternative home that should be perfect but is instead stifling after a life of abuse and into which our rebellious teen does not fit. We've got the hitting-rock-bottom on the streets. We've got the magical rescuer (who is a priest!) and the eventual salvation/redemption. It's cut-and-dried from the opening frame to the final moments of the film. Though the production and acting are fairly strong, everything else about Gimme Shelter screams "after school special." It's like the filmmakers started with some lessons—"don't do drugs," "don't have teenage sex," "don't give up on God"—and crafted the most cliché narrative possible around these elements. Whatever moments of genuine emotion the actors can muster is rendered totally inert by the fact that we know exactly what's going to happen.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The cast desperately wants to rise above this inane material, and makes a Herculean effort to do so. Taken individually, it's easy to see how the material might have drawn in actors looking for a challenge. Brendan Fraser is offered a role that lets him play on his nice-guy persona without having to resort to comic tomfoolery. Rosario Dawson gets to play the drugged-out and abusive mom, which is a bit of a departure from her previous roles. Though she's saddled with way too much exposition, and really isn't in that much of the film, she does get to breathe a little bit of life into the her stereotypical character.
Vanessa Hudgens, however, is a revelation. Obviously she's most famous for the High School Musical franchise, and that's posed problems for her as she grew into adulthood. The first step in her maturation was to do Spring Breakers, but the focus there was on her bikini-clad body and "shedding" her "innocence" more than her skills as a thespian. With Gimme Shelter she dives right into the pool of legitimate, adult acting. It's not an Olympic quality dive, but given the pall of High School Musical hanging over her, the decision to play a pregnant teen runaway seems like a significant one. Her most obvious move is to take on a thick Jersey accent, which lands more often than not. I don't want to build her performance up as Oscar caliber, but fans who've been waiting for her to grow up with them will appreciate the attempt she makes here.
There's also precious little to complain about with this Blu-ray release. The film's 2.35:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer is top-notch. Detail is strong throughout, and colors are appropriately saturated. Black levels stay deep and consistent, and there are no compression artifacts to speak of. The best part is that Gimme Shelter was shot on Super 16mm, and that shows in the slightly soft, slightly grainy look of the film. Though not the sumptuous visual feast of bigger-budget features, Gimme Shelter looks good here. The DTS-HD 5.1 track is also solid. Dialogue is always clean and clear, and the surrounds get a surprising amount of use for a drama of this type. Though not stunning, the track conveys atmosphere while serving dialogue.
Extras start with an EPK-style featurette that gives us 13 minutes of interviews and clips from the film. It's not great, but it does offer some insight into the making of the film. Then we get six minutes of deleted scenes, with commentary by writer/director Ronald Krauss. Though the scenes themselves are inessential, Krauss' commentary makes me wish he'd provided one for the feature to really round out the extras. Finally, there is an Ultraviolet digital copy of the film included as well.
It's hard to pinpoint exactly where Gimme Shelter went off the rails. The idea of a teenage runaway story isn't necessarily bad, the actors are all up to the task, and the direction is competent enough. Sadly, this is a case where the total is less than the sum of the parts. A whole set of clichés get between the filmmakers good intentions and the final product. Die-hard fans of Dawson, Fraser, or Hudgens will want to track this one down for a rental, but everyone else can feel better having skipped it.
Guilty of being too obvious.
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