Gimme Shelter. Director: Ron Krauss. Starring: Ann Dowd, James Earl Jones, Brendan Fraser, Rosario Dawson, Vanessa Hudgens. Length: 90 minutes
Whatever this film’s intention, it would be hard to find a more graphic contrast between government-funded welfare and authentic charity than is depicted in Gimme Shelter, now playing in movie theaters.
Ron Krauss, who both wrote and directed this story, was inspired by the real-world work of Kathy DiFiore, a woman who has been welcoming unwed mothers into her home for over 20 years. According to interviews, he met DiFiore by happenstance, volunteering at her shelter that was only about a mile from his brother’s house.
Krauss had volunteered at various soup kitchens and shelters before but found the striking appeal of unwed mothers and their babies, nurtured by the unassuming, faith-filled DiFiore, rich with dramatic possibility. He remained at the shelter for over a year, interviewing the girls and watching DiFiore navigate their turbulent backgrounds to draw an overwhelming percentage of them into safe harbor.
The result is a wonderfully realistic movie, filmed in DiFiore’s home, whose actors are utterly convincing in their parts – so much so that one often wonders if they are actors. In fact, four of the young mothers are not actresses but have lived at the shelter. The “professionals,” however, are magnificent. Vanessa Hudgens, best known for her work as a perky, somewhat privileged, teenager, plays a combative, unattractive fourteen year old. The gorgeous Rosario Dawson plays a decaying, mentally-unstable, and terrifyingly abusive mother. Ann Dowd takes the role of Kathy DiFiore flawlessly. [See short video clip of Dowd talking about the role here] And the inimitable James Earl Jones plays, with great paternal understanding, a Roman Catholic priest.
The story follows the transformation of a particular pregnant teenager, “Apple,” whose mother’s addictions and prostitution have forced Apple into an endless stream of foster care situations and through a largely helpless social service system. One can appreciate how little hope they offer and that Apple’s anger and mistrust are understandable protective mechanisms.
The world wants Apple to abort her child. After all, the logic goes, she doesn’t have the resources to take care of herself let alone someone else.
The DiFiore character has another perspective. She is able not only to provide protection to these helpless young mothers but also an experience of functional human interaction rooted in deep spirituality and love. Not every girl coming through her doors responds well but many do…and Apple is one.
If the film has a flow, it is that the script – which so brilliantly develops its characters – moves Apple too quickly into a sweet, self-assured new mother. She is a strong character so, while one believes that she has these qualities in her, one would expect to see scars.
The film has been touted for its “pro-life” message but Kraus insists that he doesn’t preach in his movies. “[O]ur society is so caught up with things like ‘pro-life’ and ‘pro-choice,’ he says in a recent interview, “and all these sort of word-engineering things that split us apart and make us take sides. In my film, it takes no side. It just shows you what a person goes through and struggles, and it becomes less about people on the outside trying to define what is right for people on the inside.
This shows you the inside, and what people go through. It really shows that kind of other stuff, which is really just political stuff, doesn’t have anything to do with the people who are really suffering. So, I just try to be honest and show the story, and let other people decide what it all means. Each person who sees this film leaves it differently, because we all have different experiences in our life that lets us view things differently and that’s why we all have our own point of view.”
Spero columnist Stephanie Block is the author of the four-volume series 'Change Agents: Alinskyian Organzing Among Religious Bodies', available at Amazon.