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Review: Hudgens transforms herself boldly in 'Gimme Shelter,' but flat script sinks film

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If lofty intentions, determination and hard work were all it took to make a successful movie, then "Gimme Shelter," a film about teen pregnancy starring former Disney star Vanessa Hudgens, would have it made.

Both the actress, who gained weight and made herself strikingly ungainly for the role, and director-writer Ronald Krauss clearly put their all into this film. Krauss went so far as to spend a year at a shelter for pregnant homeless teens; this was a passion project.

But passion isn't always enough. "Gimme Shelter" suffers from stilted dialogue, less than crackling storytelling and vaguely drawn characters. Yes, there are moving moments that will have you shedding a tear. But at times it has all the narrative sophistication and subtlety of a public service ad (and let's face it, those can make you cry, too.)

First things first: The title has nothing to do with the Rolling Stones. It refers quite literally to the shelter for homeless, pregnant teens that takes in 16-year-old Apple (Hudgens). Though the film is said to be based on a real story, Hudgens' character is actually an amalgam of several young women. The shelter is real, as is its admirable founder, Kathy DiFiore, played by Ann Dowd in one of the film's more appealing and grounded performances.

Hudgens appears in virtually every frame, and she does an impressive job creating yet more distance from her Disney persona, a process she began in earnest with "Spring Breakers." Those who remember her as the perkily perfect Gabriella in "High School Musical" will truly be shocked at the first sight of her: Standing at a bathroom mirror and chopping off her mangy hair, revealing blotchy skin, dirt-filled fingernails, a nose and lip ring.

Apple is in a living hell, sharing a home with her drug-addicted, abusive mother (Rosario Dawson, in an effectively frightening, go-for-broke performance). Desperate to escape, she makes it by bus to the suburban New Jersey McMansion where her biological father (Brendan Fraser), whom she's never known — he got her mother pregnant as a teenager — lives with his prim wife and two children. They aren't thrilled at first to see her.

Hudgens' best work here is physical. She eats voraciously, like an animal, and exudes a mix of anger, sadness and deep discomfort. Her spoken lines are less effective, and that's partly due to a script often filled with cliches.

It soon emerges that Apple is pregnant. The film spends no time identifying the father; it's all about Apple's road ahead. And for her father and his wife, that road does not include a baby. They urge her to have an abortion. Heck, they make the appointment.

At the clinic, an unsympathetic nurse (it's not hard to detect this film's anti-abortion message) tells her to hurry up; she's keeping the doctor waiting. Apple takes a look at her ultrasound photo, decides she can't go through with it, and bolts.

Her luck turns when an accident lands her in the hospital. There, she meets a chaplain (James Earl Jones) who tries to melt her hostile reserve, get her some religion, and get her to a shelter.

Though life for Apple quickly gets better at the shelter — Hudgens cleans up fast, maybe too fast — there's little dramatic tension in the last act of the film, save two scenes featuring her crazed yet somehow sympathetic mother. The ending feels unrealistic, at least in a longterm sense, but we won't reveal it here.

As for Hudgens, she could have been better served by a more subtly shaded script. In all, though, it's a promising step in her career.

"Gimme Shelter," a Roadside Attractions release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for "mature thematic material involving mistreatment, some drug content, violence and language — all concerning teens." Running time: 101 minutes. Two stars out of four.

MPAA definition of PG-13: Parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.

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