January 20, 2014 by Matt Spencer
There are some actors that are perfect for playing one particular type of role. Michael Cera as the awkward out-of-place white boy or Samuel L. Jackson who seamlessly plays badass mofo all the time. It’s when an actor tries to break the mold they’ve been put into that they tend to run into trouble. When an actor does decide to try a different type of role, how willing are we as an audience to see them in another light?
I pose this question because the biggest issue I had with the Gimme Shelter was the actress in the lead role, Vanessa Hudgens. You remember Hudgens from High School Musical, don’t you? Typecast as the “cute teenage girl” in those Disney Channel days, she’s tried to shed that persona in films such as Sucker Punch and Machete Kills. However, the roles she played in these movies did not serve her well in preparing for Gimme Shelter.
Hudgens plays Apple, a pregnant teen who flees the housing of her welfare-collecting mom, tries to connect with her Wall Street father, but she finds that neither is the right place for her. Untrusting and hardened by a system that has let her down, Apple finds hope in a shelter for teen mothers.
Needless to say that the world Apple lives in is not that of High School Musical. I bring this up because while I don’t think that’s the only type of role Hudgens can play, she just did not have enough gravitas to make me fully believe in her character. She may have looked rough and talked tough, but what you get though is a feeling of emptiness. While the cutesiness of her Disney Channel days did not affect how she appeared here, the entire time she was onscreen her emotions did not feel genuine, and as a result I hardly felt sympathy towards her. Since many things hinge on her performance as the lead who is supposed to be carrying the film, Gimme Shelter as a whole just does not work.
Hudgens’ unconvincing performance is further hindered by a supporting cast that easily out-acts her. Rosario Dawson gives a frightening performance as Apple’s mom, who shows us just how messed up she is in a few scenes where she terrorizes Apple. Her father is played by Brendan Frasier, who may not be the most consummate thespian, but he still plays a decent well-off-yet-regretful father (hey, the guy showed some chops in With Honors and School Ties). Finally there’s Ann Dowd, who plays the coordinator of the shelter Apple comes to stay at and who you automatically feel immensely sympathetic for when she goes toe-to-toe with Apple’s mom. All the performances from the established actors supplanted Hudgens’ acting and ultimately her character’s believability in the film.
Not even Darth Vader himself, James Earl Jones, who has a supporting role as a priest, could help the film. In fact, I felt Jones’ appearance in the film actually hurt it since I just cannot take the guy seriously ever since he started doing those Sprint commercials (Totes McGotes!).
The lack of believability wasn’t just restricted to Hudgens. The feeling that I got from the teen shelter did not feel authentic as well. While I understood the plight of Apple and the other girls that were there, nothing really drew me into their world to make me sympathize with them. Maybe it stemmed from Hudgens’ performance, or maybe it’s the fact that Short Term 12 did it better–way better. Combine all that, and at the end of the day I just could not for the life of me feel any emotion for anyone in this film.
Let me be clear on one thing though: Hudgens wasn’t bad; she was just unbelievable. Yes, there’s a difference. I just do not think that this was the right role for her. It’s not that I do not think she can break away from the typecast roles she’s known for. In fact she had a pretty good turn as a “bad girl” in last year’s Spring Breakers. No, it’s that she simply does not have enough acting chops (at this point in her career, at least) to really sink into a role like this. At least with Spring Breakers that role fit her persona. Here in this film she is just out of her depth.
Gimme Shelter has a positive message that gets bogged down by the inexperience of its lead actor, plain and simple. The highlight definitely is the supporting roles in the film, but even then, that is hardly enough to warrant the price of admission. In the end, it might be best if you seek shelter with another flick. Gimme Shelter gets 1.5 out of 5 stars.