If you listen to some, Hollywood and the media collude together to ensure faith-honoring, abortion-questioning movies like last week’s “Gimme Shelter” do not draw the audiences and laurels they deserve.
If only it were that simple.
“Gimme Shelter” follows teenager Agnes “Apple” Bailey, an abused teen who desperately searches for somewhere to make a home for herself and her coming child. She finds help in a woman whose Catholic faith inspires her to make room for young women in crisis.
It’s the stuff Oscars are made of.
In fact, two movies that covered some of the same ground did win Oscars. “Precious (Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire)” and “The Blind Side” were both nominated for Best Picture in 2010. Although both lost to “The Hurt Locker,” they both took home statues in other categories.
But “Gimme Shelter” has no Oscar hopes, is sinking at the box office, and has been roundly panned by critics.
What’s the difference between “Precious,” the story of an abused, pregnant teen in the projects; “Blind Side,” the story of a woman acting out her faith and helping someone in need; and “Gimme Shelter”?
Acting isn’t the problem. Star Vanessa Hudgens, formerly the queen of the squeaky clean “High School Musical” franchise, transforms into a mistreated, angry child who deep down clings to hope that something will change. Despite being hampered by a script with awkward dialogue, Hudgens proves she has grown beyond a teen princess.
Rosario Dawson holds nothing back in her portrayal of a confusing, manipulative, pitiful, and yet occasionally loving addict mother.
Perhaps the most surprising performance is Brendan Fraser as he makes the most of what little his role offers. As the wealthy, married man who fathered Apple in youth but never met her, he is the one to demand she abort her child. Yet, even when cruel, he brings more to the table: a mix of regret, wistfulness, selfishness, shock, and desire to make amends. His face says these things even when the script does not.
The basic story is not the problem either.
The film is based on the life’s work of a real woman: Kathy DiFiore of New Jersey, founder of Several Sources Shelters.
DiFiore’s story itself sounds like a movie: After pulling herself up from homelessness into a successful career, she opened her home to pregnant teens. The authorities tried to shut her down, but a personal appeal from Mother Theresa saved her project. She went on to open more.
Ann Dowd plays DiFiore in Gimme Shelter and is the best part of the movie. Her compassion, mixed with no-nonsense toughness, will be familiar to anyone who has spent time around those who minister to the rough edges of society.
It’s a great story. So why is the movie not gaining ground?
Some will blame the critic chorus, who roundly panned “Gimme Shelter,” giving it a low 24 percent on Rotten Tomato’s Tomatometer.
But before we cry anti-religious bias foul, let’s look a little closer. Most of the major critics say the same thing: The acting is fine, the script clumsy, and the message hammering.
And they have a point.
Interestingly, the major critics do not waste much time complaining about the religious elements of the film. Major exceptions exist, of course, but serious critics do not object to faith that is integral to a character’s experience.
At Vulture, Bilge Ebiri starts by admitting his pro-choice, liberal point of view. He then points out some weaknesses with which it is hard to argue. Of Apple’s father attempting to force her into abortion, he says:
“This would be a politically loaded plot point no matter what, but director Ron Krauss does his movie no favors by presenting it in the clunkiest way possible. Tom and his wife are presented as domineering and callous; the wife accompanies Apple to the clinic, but then bails on her in the waiting room, while a nurse harshly barks orders at the young girl. Clearly, these are all terrible people. (Of course, liberal movies often indulge in this kind of deck-stacking as well, and sometimes they’re even rewarded with Oscars.)”
He’s right. The abortion-pushing characters aren’t presented as people. They are plot devices of something the movie assumes the audience agrees is evil, akin to a guy jumping out with a gun.
This attitude is fine when making a film for people who already feel abortion is equivalent to murder, but not if the filmmaker wants to win minds and hearts.
In order to truly create a character, one has to love him a little bit, enough to understand what makes him tick.
The film does not love these characters at all and therefore has no chance to win over those who might identify with them.
In a sense, the movie is not brave enough. It should have the courage to either present abortion as it is in all its Gosnell horror or to embrace and challenge the web of half-truths and avoidance that allow the otherwise decent people to engage in the practice.
The positive characters are equally flat: do-gooders with saintly confidence. James Earl Jones is a kindly, loving hospital chaplain who just oozes certainty and Kathy DiFiore always has the answers.
Most priests who serve as chaplains at hospitals or prisons would likely not say they have no struggles or doubts in their work. In fact, people of faith are most accessible when they are confused, overwhelmed, hurt, and not up to the task before them.
In “The Blind Side,” we loved Sandra Bullock’s Leigh Anne because she was far from perfect with her take-out family dinners and pushy ways. Her story is special precisely because she was flawed and did a wonderful thing despite those flaws.
People of faith have a mantra that in weakness, Christ is made strong, yet we tell our stories as if the people of faith have no weaknesses.
The second major flaw of the film is that it pulls its punches. It pretends to be about many things like homelessness and abuse when really the heart of the film is a mother fighting for her unborn child.
There is a purity of heart to Apple’s quest to find a safe place to bring her baby into the world. It is the key that needs to be boldly and fearlessly portrayed and the emotional chord to which audiences will connect.
We know Apple wants to keep her baby. What we never know is why.
It’s the thing that secular critics pick up on as well.
Alonso Duralde writes in The Wrap:
Even though Tom and Joanna’s suggestion that this 16-year-old girl — with no home, education or apparent resources — should consider terminating the pregnancy seems to merit at least some discussion, “Gimme Shelter” immediately demonizes them for having brought it up at all. (If a movie wants to make a case against abortion, it certainly should. But its makers should have enough courage in their convictions at least to present the argument they’re confident they’re going to win.)
What’s this? A pro-choice critic begging a film to make its pro-life case?
Someone ought to take him up on it.