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.