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'Gimme Shelter' review: Better than it looks

**1/2 (out of four)

In “Spring Breakers,” 2013’s best movie, Vanessa Hudgens sported bikini after bikini. Her character’s problems concerned acquiring enough money to party and drink her ass off and how to handle the gangster named Alien (James Franco) who sprung her from jail.

In “Gimme Shelter,” Hudgens plays a character who, other than also seeking an escape from her environment, is pretty much the exact opposite. When we meet Agnes, who prefers being called Apple, she’s running from an angry drug addict (Rosario Dawson) who turns out to be her mother and attempting to contact the father (Brendan Fraser) she’s never met. After bouncing from foster home to foster home, and suffering physical and emotional abuses that have shattered her faith, Apple lives off the grid, and not by choice. “I want out of the system!” she screams in one of several moments where writer-director Ronald Krauss’ script feels unnatural.

Apple’s struggle and time in a shelter for teen moms are based on the work of Kathy DiFiore (Ann Dowd of “Compliance”), who for decades has run such a facility in Ramsey, N.J. It would be easy for the big-screen treatment to turn into a movie-of-the-week sob story, an extended “Teen Mom” or, at worst, a hysterical “Jerry Springer” episode. “Gimme Shelter” isn’t really any of those, nor does it rise to the excellence of last year’s foster care drama “Short Term 12.” “Shelter” doesn’t point fingers at society’s bottom rung or the people who contribute to that fate. It doesn’t feature a lot of speeches about perseverance, and Apple doesn’t find salvation through God.

Rather, the film, which shouldn’t have borrowed the title of a Rolling Stones song/documentary or used Lana Del Rey’s glamorous “Born to Die” as Apple walks the street, is both better than its trailer suggested and not quite good enough to call good. Hudgens fares well even when elevating clunky dialogue or a forced emotional outburst. And Krauss seems unwilling to engage the hard truths about what it takes to run and live at a shelter like DiFiore’s (not to mention the basic challenges of raising newborns). It appears this woman’s something of a saint, but it’d take a miracle worker to so completely minimize dramas once people enter her care.

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