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