MPAA Rating, PG-13
USCCB Rating, A-III
Reel Rating: (4 Reels out of 5)
Note: Spoilers Alert!
In the 1938 classic Boys Town, Fr. Flanagan famously said, “there is no such thing as a bad boy.” He didn’t mean males never sin; rather, the worst social situations and bad habits of the homeless rebel teenager do not remove his God-given dignity or opportunity for redemption. The same is true for Apple, a poor, expectant teenager who escapes her abusive mother in search of a home. Gimme Shelter is the best pro-life movie yet made, mostly because it is an actual movie rather than a two-hour sermon. It is beautifully written with amazing performances by A-list actors. Most importantly, it has the real capacity to change lives.
The film opens with Apple Bailey (Vanessa Hudgens) brutally cutting her hair and calling a cab to pick her up. It is unknown who this girl is, why she is changing her looks, or where she is going in such a hurry. Gradually, it becomes clear she is fleeing her monster of a mother, June (Rosario Dawson), and seeking her biological father, Tom (Brendan Frasier), with only a decade-old letter to guide her. Tom, now a successful stock broker, is open to helping her, but his wife Joanna is less keen, especially when it is revealed that Apple is pregnant from a brief affair (not unlike Tom and June). They arrange an abortion for Apple. Waiting at the clinic, Apple takes one last peek at the ultrasound picture and runs away weeping.
When Apple emerges from the clinic, she will not return to her father and becomes homeless. While fleeing a prospective pimp, she steals a car and promptly crashes. In the hospital, she meets Fr. McCarthy (James Earl Jones in an amazing performance). He gently tries to lead her soul to peace while guiding her to Catholic shelter for pregnant mothers in need run by a saintly woman named Kathy (Ann Dowd). The shelter provides Apple with her first genuine security in life including protection from June, spiritual guidance, financial assistance, and, most importantly, love. While initially hesitant, she eventually connects with the other woman at the shelter over their common struggles and finds a true home.
This film is a tremendously effective treatise on abortion because it connects the situation of Apple with that of her child. It handles abortion in a direct, realistic fashion without dramatic music, screaming, or political overtones. Apple understands what it means to be unwanted and realizes she could never treat another human that way. The film title Gimme Shelter could just as easily apply to Apple’s child as herself. Every baby seeks shelter in the wombs of their mothers and the loving work of their fathers. All people are called to be hospitable hosts to these tiny guests.
Two people who are not hospitable are Tom and June. Tom had left June shortly after he got her pregnant, going on to lead a life of luxury in white suburban New Jersey while the mixed-raced June gave birth to Apple in poverty-stricken New York City. June is terrible to Apple: beating her, yelling at her, and even suggesting it was good she got pregnant because it will bring them more welfare money, all while obviously addicted to a variety of drugs. June’s crimes are her own, but it’s impossible to ignore the consequences of the racial, social, and educational divides.
When Apple does finally find shelter, it is with people just like her. There is a pivotal scene where the teens break into Kathy’s office and share their personal files. One by one, they read the summery of their broken lives to each other: abuse, rape, prostitution, mental illness, and homelessness. What started as a funny prank evolves into a gentle therapy session, and Apple slowly opens herself up to the group. Everyone here is broken like her but wants the best life for their babies. She also finds in Kathy her first real mother, a woman who experienced the same challenges Apple did growing up.
Gimme Shelter has only one misstep, but it comes at a crucial moment. After Apple gives birth to a beautiful baby girl (cheesily but aptly named Hope), Tom invites her and his granddaughter to live with him. He has even built an entire house for her right next to his with a nursery adorned including all the pink trappings a European princess would be jealous to have. He has created the perfect ending. However, Apple cannot accept; something is not right. It is rich and fancy, but also cold and empty. She gives him the long, dreaded soliloquy that plagues “message films.” It’s disjointed, confusing, and unnecessary. In a small way, however, this makes sense because Apple has spent the entire film looking down at her feet and not saying five words at a time. Yet the wisdom of Samuel Goldwyn still rings true: “pictures were made to entertain if you want to send a message, call Western Union.”
Apple’s choice, however, is very appropriate. Although Tom repented and will be a part of Apple’s life, he cannot simply buy back her love. She has a community that truly loves her and enough playmates for Hope to last a lifetime. That is home.
(I rarely mention my own life in reviews, but this true story is too good to pass up. Every year, my friends and I drive six hours up to San Francisco to attend the West Coast Walk for Life, turning my in-law’s house into a youth hostel. My wife insisted on seeing Gimme Shelter the night before when it premiered at 7:00 even though we were getting up at 4:00 the next morning. Since both of us are film geeks and don’t like paying for a babysitter, four-month-old Nick Jr. came with us. He is already an experienced movie goer—this was his eighth or ninth theater experience—but did make some noise once or twice. Rather than being upset, several people told us how much they loved his gurgling commentary.)
Gimme Shelter is not simply against abortion but is a total cinematic celebration of life, from the mothers’ heroic courage to Fr. McCathy’s simple Christian charity to Kathy’s strong and generous spirit. No one could come to the end of this film and conclude that the pro-life movement is against women’s rights or restricts authentic human freedom. Being pro-life means “opening the door to anyone who knocks.” * If Gimme Shelter is any indication of what films 2014 has in store (including three Biblical epics), it will be a very good year.
[*I heard this phrase in the film The Hiding Place (1975) but it may be an allusion to the Book of Revelation.]
Also see: “Gimme Shelter is about the new face of homelessness—and hope” by Carl E. Olson (Jan. 23, 2014)