When thinking about films and filmmakers that encapsulate the struggles of those living on the margins of society, the filmography of the Dardenne brothers immediately comes to mind. The Belgian filmmakers have made some of the most incredible contemporary films about people struggling with everyday circumstance - the raising of a child, the loss of a patriarch, the quest for a job, etc - and grounded it within an aesthetic of gritty realism. Rosetta, featured in my Best of the Nineties column, ranks among the brothers’ most fulfilling and thematically astute work in their filmography, functioning as the ideal primer for all their future works. I bring up the Dardennes and more specifically Rosetta because Ron Krauss’ Gimme Shelter, despite being based on a true story, is very much indebted to the brothers’ film.
The malnourished skin tone and hair style sported by Vanessa Hudgens in Gimme Shelter may conceal the fact that she was once a spring breaker, but it’s an appearance that bears a striking resemblance to Émilie Dequenne in Rosetta. Even the Dardenne’s lauded opening sequence, which sees Dequenne running down stairs in an attempt to dissuade pursuers, is lifted for Gimme Shelter, though placed in the middle of the film as a bridge between its two connective narrative concerns. The first of these concerns is about the plights of youth poverty, where Apple (Vanessa Hudgens) leaves her abusive and drug-addled mother in hopes of pulling her life together. She does so by reaching out to her wealthy father (Brendan Fraser in a surprisingly disarming and effective role). Apple’s distrust of authority and unwillingness to abort her child moves the picture from the messy sprawl of urban survival to the confines of religious communal foster living, essentially attempting to capture the realism that was seen in last year’s Short Term 12.
Gimme Shelter aims high by keeping socially-conscious films like Rosetta and Short Term 12 within its rear view, but the mentality it holds on its subjects just feels incredibly simple and awkwardly conceived. The efforts in exaggerating Apple’s circumstance becomes a particular sour point, as the usually solid Rosario Dawson is uglified beyond reason while the aura of entitlement associated with Brendan Fraser’s wealth stifles any insights the film might make. The complicated social politics that Gimme Shelter approaches essentially equates poverty with the bad and wealth with the good. It’s largely a problem from a writing standpoint, as Krauss proves to be capable (by emulating the Dardenne’s naturalistic style) while Hudgens has a kind of manic energy that contrasts the rest of the picture quite well. There are some mild deviations from the normative qualities found in these types of films, particularly in its study of religiosity and faith with James Earl Jones lending himself to the cast as a priest - another effective casting choice. But these deviations mask the boxed-in simplicity of a film that attempts to tackle social concerns without thinking much outside the box.