“Gimme Shelter”
First, a couple of complaints. (Well, after all, I am a critic.) Great title to this film. So why not get the rights to the classic “Rolling Stones” 1969 song by the same title and use it as a soundtrack? Yes, like the song says, war is just a shot away, and love is just a kiss away. Would have been a great context. The second complaint is using a 24-year-old to play a 16-year old. C’mon, Vanessa Hudgins was perfect for those “High School Musical” roles when she really was high school age. But if you’re going to make a movie about pregnant teenage runaways, don’t you spoil some of the inherent poignancy by picking people who don’t look quite as scared and vulnerable as a real teenager would?
Having said that, Vanessa Hudgins does, in fact, deliver a memorably evocative performance as Agnes “Call Me Apple” Bailey. It’s based on a true story. Agnes is born to a mother who was a pregnant teenager herself. June Bailey (Rosario Dawson) is now, sadly, a drug addict, and probably a hooker, also (though thankfully we don’t see her turning tricks). Agnes “Call Me Apple” is tired of the marginal living and abusive circumstances, and takes off to try to find her Dad. Tom Fitzpatrick (Brendan Fraser) was just a recent high school graduate when he impregnated June, and his parents quickly shipped him off to college and told him to forget about the whole thing. So he sent a letter to his yet-unborn daughter trying to apologize, and that’s the only thing she has from him. Along with a high school yearbook photo.
Well, Agnes “Call Me Apple” does, in fact, find her Dad, but it turns out that now he’s a successful Wall Street guy who lives in New Jersey with his lovely wife and two little children, and he’s completely stunned when Apple shows up in his life. She looks a little worse for wear right now: hair in her eyes, nose ring, lip ring, neck tattoo, sullen attitude. A true Rebel Without A Cause. Tom’s stuck-up young wife, Joanna (Stephanie Szostak) wants no part of this, and Tom, of course, is stuck in the middle. Worse still, Apple now finds out she’s pregnant. By someone who’s no longer in her life.
Apple hits bottom when she tries to steal someone’s car and wrecks it, waking up handcuffed to a hospital bed. But there she meets the first person who shows her a little kindness, Father Frank McCarthy (James Earl Jones), the hospital chaplain. Through his gentle persistence, Apple reluctantly agrees to live in a local shelter for pregnant teenagers that was established 20 years before by Kathy (Ann Dowd), who was once herself a homeless runaway. There, at last, Apple finds some acceptance, and a place where she belongs, and some actual friends. It’s a transforming experience for her.
So is actually having the baby, a wrenchingly emotional scene that will bring tears to the eyes of even the most stoic viewer. Apple names her baby girl “Hope,” and now she seems much more like a person prepared to take on the responsibility of being a single Mom (gradually she’s shed the face rings and fixed her hair and started wearing makeup).
Yes, it’s all tied up a little too neatly at the end, because the realist/cynic would say that she still has no way to support herself or provide for her baby. But her transformation/redemption feels like a triumph, anyway. This one will generate all the right-to-life/abortion debates, as well as about welfare programs (including aid for dependent children), extended family responsibility, etc. etc. It will also remind us believers of how Christian it is to welcome home the prodigal.
Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, Minister, St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church, Irving , Texas