"I'm not scared."
Over and over, Agnes "Apple" Bailey repeats the words like a prayer. She slices her hair off in clumps, getting ready to run away.
"I'm not scared," she says. "I can do this."
So familiar these words, lies though they are. Apple's 16 years have been defined by fear. Fear of her abusive mother. Fear of her foster parents. Fear of the system that just keeps shuffling her around.
In the last four years, she's had 10 sets of foster parents. One foster father abused her. Others, perhaps, just couldn't deal for long with her problems—her attitude, her anger, her fear. Now back with her mother, Apple sees little has changed from when the state first separated them: June Bailey is still a prostitute, still an addict, still a manic mom who showers her daughter with loving platitudes one minute, then hits her and threatens to kill her the next.
I'm not scared, Apple thinks as she runs away—runs to find a father she's never met. For all of her life she's held on to a letter from her dad—a letter that called her the apple of his eye. But when she arrives at his house, things don't go as planned. She's arrested for trespassing at first, and when she's invited in to stay for a while, she quickly learns that her father has another family—a beautiful wife, two cute kids and a massive mansion with no room for her. Apple eats like an animal. Smells like one. Her face is covered with piercings and her neck branded with tattoos. And even though Tom looks at her and sees his daughter underneath all that, his wife only sees a mistake he made so long ago.
Oh, and then there's this. Apple is pregnant. She carries another "mistake" that she's not prepared to deal with. And if Apple's going to have any future at all—certainly any future with her father's lovely family—that mistake is going to have to be taken care of.
"Before you know it, you will have forgotten that it ever happened," Tom tells her. It'll let you just move on and turn the page.
"Like you did with me?" Apple lashes back.
Because Apple doesn't feel like her baby's a mistake. So instead of getting an abortion, she runs away again—this time into the streets. She has no food, no shelter. I'm not scared, she tells herself again and again. But as she pounds on a shelter door and no one answers, she breaks down.
"Help," she cries. "Please God."
But no one seems to hear, much less answer, and she staggers back onto the sidewalk. And when a man with ill intent practically forces her into his SUV, she steals the car—and runs smack into a truck. When she comes to, she's in a hospital bed, her leg broken, her face bloodied, her hands in handcuffs.
A stranger is staring at her—one more stranger in a litany of them, people who've shuffled her around and away as someone else's problem.
I'm not scared, Apple thinks, forcing her mangled face into the streetwise mask she's worn for so long.
But for once in her life, she really truly shouldn't be.
The stranger hovering over Apple's bed is Father Frank McCarthy, who tells her the baby's OK and the charges against her will likely be dropped.
"I don't need a priest," Apple snaps. "God don't care about me. … Last time I asked Him for help, He put me here."
McCarthy smiles. "He's a tough CO at times," the priest admits. "But maybe you're exactly where you were meant to be."
That hospital stay does indeed prove to be a turning point in Apple's life—though she doesn't make it easy on anyone to help her. She's stubborn and sullen and angry and unappreciative. And yet McCarthy never gives up on her—even when she shouts him out of the room.
He winds up connecting Apple with a shelter for pregnant teens, headed by a remarkable woman named Kathy, a woman who herself was homeless decades earlier. Her house provides a safe place for young women to stay during and after their pregnancies. It gives these troubled teens another option besides aborting their children—and gives those saved babies a head start most of the young moms never had.
This is no Pollyannaish playground where problems miraculously vanish. Parenthood is never easy, regardless the circumstances, and these babies who are mothers of babies face more obstacles than most. One girl in particular, Cassandra, bridles against Kathy's rules and what she thinks is a holy facade. And Apple is, throughout much of the movie, really hard to get along with. She's nasty and sullen, and it's pretty easy to see why some would be scared to take her on as a foster daughter. But the movie clearly connects the dots between her attitude problems and her abuse. And as hard as it is to watch her yell and hurt the people who want what's best for her, the deeper message is one of empathy, compassion and healing. And that even applies to the scenes in which we see her breaking the law, trespassing, stealing and driving without a license.
Because as Apple stays in the home, she (and we) gradually see the love that's present here—the support given and received by the girls, the guidance and grace offered by Kathy herself. And slowly, Apple's gritty exterior gives way to a gentle-yet-fiercely-protective 16-year-old who'll do whatever she can to love and keep and raise her baby.
Indeed, the film specifically and repeatedly reinforces the value of the developing life inside a mother. And it's not just the right decisions Apple makes about wanting to keep her baby, problem though she might be. We see over and over again ultrasound pictures of the child as a nurse tells her the sex of the baby and as Apple takes to toting around a small black-and-white printout portrait. We're basically told that the baby's life trumps any personal need, any selfish ambition, any fear.
Finally, as Apple grows emotionally, she gets the chance to forge new bonds with her father, too. And the barriers between her and his family begin to soften and break down as forgiveness and trust start to bloom.
Faith in Christ undergirds this entire tale. Father McCarthy directly states that Apple is in God's hands, and moviegoers will see evidence of His handiwork everywhere.
Not long after yelling at McCarthy, Apple hobbles to the hospital chapel to find him and apologize. The priest soon has her reading aloud from Jeremiah: "For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope."
Kathy's shelter is filled with religious iconography (we see a statue of Jesus and crosses on the walls, among other things), and there's a picture of the matron receiving a hug from Mother Teresa. Later, Kathy rounds up the teens and has them visit a church to ask for donations during the service. The mothers and mothers-to-be celebrate Christmas in the shelter, and they pose for a picture in front of a faith-themed Christmas banner.
Apple is pregnant, as mentioned. (She never talks about her sexual partner other than to say he was black.) We know that her mom is a prostitute, and we see her wearing a dress that's so short we briefly see most of her backside. She's shown sitting on a bed with a shirtless man. And we learn that one of the girls in the shelter was also a prostitute. Another was raped as a child. Apple talks about the foster father who came into her bedroom and touched her. It's apparent that the man in the SUV is trying to force Apple into his vehicle for sexual purposes.
The girls sometimes make crass comments about others' suspected lovers. Apple's mom tears into her, telling her that they're no different, both getting pregnant so young.
When Apple crashes the SUV, we see the scary impact from her perspective as she screams. At the hospital afterwards, her face still has blood on it.
We're never told just how abusive Apple's mother was through the years, but the implication is that it got very, very bad. When Apple runs away, June assaults her, grabbing the girl's hair and smacking her around. Apple fights back and manages to get away. In a later confrontation, June slaps her daughter twice, then tries to wrestle past Kathy to get to her again.
All this animosity culminates in a frightening confrontation inside a church: Apple, accepting donations from parishioners, suddenly finds herself face-to-face with her mother, who's clenching a razor blade in her teeth. June hisses at Apple to give her a kiss—and lunges forward, slashing repeatedly at the girl's face. Apple escapes with a small cut on her cheek, and June is wrestled to the ground by parishioners and police.
Apple is literally thrown out of a taxi when the cabbie realizes she doesn't have enough money (and she tries to steal the vehicle). Tom's wife, Joanna, takes Apple to a hospital for an ultrasound: When Apple's done, she sees that Joanna's left her there alone—and when the girl finally gets home, she lurches at the older woman and has to be held back by Tom. Against her will, Apple is then escorted to an abortion clinic.
Crude or Profane Language
We hear "a‑‑" (once), "b‑‑ch" (twice), and "d‑‑n" and "h‑‑‑" (three times each). God's name is interjected carelessly twice. Women are called "sluts" and "whores."
Drug and Alcohol Content
Though we never see June use drugs, it's clear that she does. We hear that some of the girls in the shelter used to have drug problems. Tom and Joanna sip wine.
Other Negative Elements
One girl defiantly breaks curfew and steals Kathy's keys. All the girls traipse through forbidden areas of the house, sneaking into the huge basement full of clothes (for baby and mother) and taking things, then getting into Kathy's office, rifling through her desk and reading their case files.
We see Apple vomit (due to morning sickness); she takes a home pregnancy test while sitting on a toilet. June spits in Kathy's face.
When Apple first arrives at the shelter, she and Kathy go head to head. Apple starts to holler at her, but Kathy won't have it.
"Here, you become a mother," Kathy tells her. "And that means you take responsibility. Don't cast your immaturity on me."
Gimme Shelter, based on a true story, is a gritty, painfully grown-up depiction of teen pregnancy, abandonment, homelessness and child abuse. As Apple, Vanessa Hudgens (of High School Musical fame) is nearly unrecognizable underneath her piercings and unkempt hair. And this role may well mark her as a serious actress capable of doing serious work.
An aside: Often, we hear about former Mouse House princesses wanting or (some say) needing to become more "adult"—a transition typically marked, ironically, by increasingly juvenile stunts and immature decisions. But as Miley Cyrus twerks her way to ever greater notoriety, and even as Hudgens herself makes forays in that direction (with Spring Breakers and Machete Kills), Apple pushes Hudgens into a role that requires real maturity—playing a teen forced to grow up much too young.
This isn't necessarily a family-friendly movie. Young children wouldn't (and shouldn't) easily understand the subject matter; they could easily be hurt by the intensity of the conflict surrounding it. And it's not technically a Christian movie—at least not as we've come to understand the term in recent years. (See Fireproof, Grace Unplugged and I'm in Love With a Church Girl for reference.) But it does spend a great deal of time teaching us about God, His love, His direction and His care. And it may be the most persuasively pro-life movie we've ever reviewed here at Plugged In.
Gimme Shelter is about great kindness in the midst of severe suffering. It's about what a difference people can make under difficult circumstances. It's about courage, about growing up, about letting go of past pain in order to secure a better future. And it's about protecting children while they're unable to protect themselves—both 16-year-olds and 0-year-olds. It doesn't deny the awfulness that life throws at us sometimes. It just says that if we look hard enough (and accept God's guidance here and there), we can find our way … well, to shelter.