The National Catholic Review
Jan 24 2014 - 5:31pm | Ashley McKinless
One teenager's surprising prolife journey

The big screen has a strange relationship with abortion. The oft-made claim that Hollywood advances a liberal social agenda doesn’t hold much water when it comes to the prochoice cause. While sex, drugs and alternative lifestyles abound, when it comes to unplanned pregnancies, more often than not screenwriters opt to have the woman bring the child to term.

Three popular movies released in 2007, “Juno,” “Knocked Up” and “The Waitress,” followed this script, sparking a debate about Hollywood’s penchant for prolife storylines. Some critics pointed to the conservative agenda of financiers or risk-averse producers afraid of a vocal prolife backlash to explain the tiptoeing around the issue that, as put by the unprepared father in “Knocked Up,” “rhymes with shmashmortion.” But the answer is likely simpler. When the director of the “The Waitress” was asked why the film’s writer Adrienne Shelley shied away from dealing with the complexities of abortion, he replied that “good New York liberal” that she was, she found “richer material” allowing the pregnancy to progress.

Ronald Krauss, writer and director of Gimme Shelter, also finds much richness in the journey of girls who by all outward appearance seem unfit to take care of themselves—much less a baby—and nevertheless choose motherhood. The film follows the story of Agnes “Apple” Bailey (“High School Musical” star Vanessa Hudgens), who at the age of eight was taken from her home by protective services and spent four years bouncing between a mental hospital, temporary shelters and fosters families before her drug-addicted mother managed to regain custody. Her unstable and loveless upbringing has taken an obvious toll: those who know Hudgens from her Disney days will hardly recognize the pierced and tatted 16 year old, who—thanks to some less-than-subtle acting—comes off as almost animal-like, snarling at anyone who dares offer a hand and using her own to shovel food into her mouth. We meet Apple as she fights her way out of the home of her abusive mother, played by an equally gnarly-looking Rosario Dawson.

The film is at its weakest as it contrives an unlikely series of events to get Apple situated in the shelter for pregnant teens. During a brief stint at the suburban mansion of the father she had never met, a millionaire Wall Street stockbroker played by Brendan Fraser, Apple learns that she is pregnant. When her father and his flinty wife (Stephanie Szostak) offer to help Apple—if she gets an abortion—Krauss does not linger on Apple’s reasons for refusing to follow through on the operation. Instead, an unfortunate series of events (fleeing the clinic, sleeping on the street, stealing, then crashing, a car) land her in a hospital, where Father Frank McCarthy, a kind Catholic chaplain played by James Earl Jones, tries to shepherd the resistant patient to a local pregnancy shelter.

In one of the film’s more powerful scenes, Apple’s mother comes to the hospital with a social worker to try to convince her daughter to come home. Dawson’s performance is gripping as she swings back and forth between genuine sympathy for Apple and more selfish motives for wanting her “baby” back (“The state will take care of us”). Ultimately, she seems to be searching for her own vindication: “Nobody wanted me to have you," she tells Apple. But she made the choice to be a mother and wants to show Apple, herself and the world that has not been kind to her that she made the right decision. Apple is clearly moved and conflicted; but now she has her own choice to make, and sees the best chance for her and her baby in the lifeline that Father McCartney has provided. 

The inspiration for the shelter, and indeed the entire movie, is the life’s work of Kathy DiFiore, who allowed Krauss to live in one of her homes for pregnant teens for a year while he wrote the script. (The character of Apple emerged as an amalgam of the stories he heard from the young mothers living there.) After a difficult divorce and subsequent period of homelessness, DiFiore felt called to open up her own home to teens with unplanned pregnancies and nowhere else to go. So began Several Sources Shelters, which since 1981 has grown to include four residential shelters for impoverished mothers and their children, a daytime shelter for homeless women and a 24-hour national hotline for pregnant women.

It is here that Apple begins to let her guard down and allow the love offered by Kathy (Anne Dowd) and the other young mothers begin to transform her. Krauss doesn’t sugar coat the hardship and horror that have brought the women to this place: abuse, neglect, mental illness, sexual abuse, poverty. Nor does he imply that religion has all the answers. While there are strong religious themes and images in the film (Father McCarthy has a knack for quoting Scripture and pictures of Mary and Mother Teresa paper the walls of the shelter), Apple and the other young mothers are not “saved” by finding Jesus but by each other and the tireless, patient work of Kathy DiFiore. 

So why is an industry whose messaging is often at odds with traditional religious teaching so at home with the prolife ethic? Apple could have gone through with the operation and had her Daddy Warbucks ending. But in refusing to “turn the page and forget about” her “unfortunate” condition, as her well-meaning father suggests, Apple is able to discover what is good and lovable in herself and those around her. It is by no means an easy journey, but it is one worth watching. 

And if carrying through a pregnancy provides writers better material on screen—how much more so in our lives? What Krauss’ film lacks in convincing plot and dialogue, it makes up for in heart. He and the actors threw themselves into this project (Fraser donated his salary from the film to Several Sources) to get the message to young mothers—women who may feel like the world has given them few choices—that they and their babies can have a chance for a brighter future. We know sex sells. Fortunately, hope does too.

"Gimme Shelter" is in theaters Jan. 24. You can watch the trailer here and learn more about the story and work of Kathy DiFiore at http://www.severalsourcesfd.org/.

Ashley McKinless is an assistant editor at America.

Comments

Thomas Szyszkiewicz | 1/28/2014 - 8:53am

It's too bad that the film lacked a convincing plot and dialogue. Making up for that with "heart" is nice but heart is no substitute for a solid plot and solid dialogue. The reviews on Rotten Tomatoes showed that to 77 percent of the reviewers, the film had an afternoon school special feel to it, so they obviously missed the "heart" part of it.

Filmmakers who want to show the world the truth of the Christian life need to practice the craft well, just as writers or musicians need to do the same. That means having convincing plots and dialogues. This is why a film like Babette's Feast evinces the Eucharist so well, or why the duet of Jean de Florette and Manon of the Spring are great antidotes to the poison of jealousy. None of them are morality tales, but they all beautifully convey the moral with convincing plots and dialogues.

The trailer shows what appear to be amazing performances by the actors, so it's too bad that the rest of the film didn't have the same skill applied to it. It could have been a great help to the pro-life movement.

Marie Rehbein | 1/27/2014 - 1:41pm

There were three times more births than abortions in the US in 2010. So, not only is it incorrect to say that "liberals" want people to have abortions or that "liberals" run the media and send the message that abortion is good, but it is also incorrect to say that the culture we live in is a "culture of death". If anything, it could be said that we live in a culture of fear of what could go wrong.

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