For many of us who grew up in or were familiar with the tri-state area encompassing the Delaware Valley of Philadelphia north into New York/Newark, New Jersey and southeast into Delaware, the 1980's was a tumultuous time for not only national and international news, but local news as well. One of those news stories that stuck with me for decades originated out of New Jersey surrounding Kathy DiFiore. For those unfamiliar with DiFiore's story, she is the founder of Several Sources Shelters, a home where pregnant young women and teens can come and live for up to one year after the birth of their child with everything free of charge. School-age mothers are tutored at the shelter so they may graduate high school, girls who have dropped out of school are helped to pass the GED, with all being given classes in child care and practical, employment skills so they can make a life for themselves and their child on leaving Several Sources. Many of the girls even go to college.
What started as a charitable act on the part of DiFiore in 1981 when she took in one pregnant girl who had nowhere to go, has blossomed into five shelters in 2014 with outreach programs around the world, all funded 100% by donations. But back in 1984, a simple act of kindness was attacked by the NJ government, resulting in the levy of a $10,000 fine against her, alleging that her private residence, which at that point had become a small shelter for unwed mothers, was being operated as an illegal boardinghouse. Requiring zoning variances and/or intervention by the state Legislature in order to stay open, DiFiore, while successful in her efforts to have a bill passed allowing the home to stay open, faced an uphill battle with then-Governor Tom Kean who didn't want to sign the bill. A deeply religious woman herself, DiFiore turned to Mother Teresa for guidance and help. It was Mother Teresa who convince Kean to sign the bill into law.
For almost 18 months, DiFiore's legal troubles were bandied about as "the big story" in the news before finally resolving. Sadly, the seeming salaciousness of the alleged legal problems compounded by the growing battle lines over abortion, teen pregnancy and pro-life, overshadowed the tireless compassion of DiFiore's work. Since that time, thanks to the assistance from Mother Teresa in rebuilding her reputation and the facility, DiFiore has stayed out of the public eye, protecting not only the Several Sources foundation, but more importantly, fiercely protecting the girls who come to her for help. That is, until now.
Thanks to the kind and sincere spirit of filmmaker Ron Krauss, DiFiore finally agreed to allow Several Sources and its works to be showcased. But instead of a documentary format, while living in the shelter for a year himself to get to the heart and truth of the experience and its purpose, Krauss scripted a compelling emotional story crafted from the lives and experiences of the actual girls at Several Sources, most notably melding the lives of two girls into what would become the face of those in need, a young girl named Agnes "Apple" Bailey.
Never knowing her father but for a letter written to her by him shortly after her own birth, Apple has lived with her mother. A crack-addict and prostitute, June has been anything but a mother to Apple, and when Apple discovers that she is now pregnant and destined to repeat her mother's life, she runs. Intending to find the fairy-tale father-daughter life at the end of the journey, Apple indeed finds her father. But she doesn't get the open armed welcome she dreamt of. Tom Fitzpatrick is a successful Wall Street trader with a young wife and two your children. Apple is dirty, unkempt and ill-mannered and not in keeping with the Fitzpatrick lifestyle. On learning she is pregnant, Tom's wife Joanna hauls her off to the clinic for an abortion - and abandons her. Again, Apple runs, only to quickly encounter multiple tragedies that land her in the hospital under the caring eyes of Father Frank McCarthy. But Father Frank has a friend and a solution for Apple - Several Sources and Kathy DiFiore.
Resistant to help from anyone, Apple reluctantly agrees to stay at Several Sources, but as time goes on and she bonds with some of the other girls, and is ministered with DiFiore's love, encouragement and structure, her despair and anger turn into salvation. But with June eager to get her hands back around Apple's neck and Tom slowly coming around to the idea of being a father and grandfather, can Apple find the strength and courage to be her own confident independent woman and mother?
Vanessa Hudgens. Who would have thought of Hudgens for the role of Apple? Several years ago, certainly not me. But after "Frozen Ground", as well as "Spring Breakers", I was intrigued with the casting choice. And let me tell you, what many, including myself, thought might have been a flash-in-the-pain dramatic turn in "Frozen Ground", is proven to be anything but having seen her performance in GIMME SHELTER. Describing Apple as "the strongest person I have ever read about and there's nothing more attractive on a female than being a strong woman", Hudgens was pulled into the role and the story. "I knew that it would take a transformation. . .I was willing to just dive into because I was so passionate about the character and the project." And she does, wholly and completely.
Hudgens is developing some strong dramatic acting chops and more than proves herself here. As Apple, Hudgens' greatest strength and where she excels, is with creating and delivering palpable anger and rage. You feel her pain. She makes Apple's frustration with the system and life very real. You empathize. But what I truly appreciate with her performance is that Hudgens never boxes herself in so as to make you pity Apple. That really struck me while watching. When it comes to joy and happiness and any sense of ease within the character, however, she never quite achieves that, there is always a sense of uncomfortableness that bodes well for the character, but on the whole, a solid grounded powerful performance rooted in courage and conviction of her ability.
Key to the strength of Hudgens' performance was her dedication to the role, so much so, that she went to the Several Sources shelter and lived with the girls for several weeks to prepare for the role. "[I]t really allowed their stories to become reality rather than just a story. They really opened up to me and they shared their story with me. I just got to witness firsthand how strong these young women are. . . In the beginning, it was a complete shock. I had never been around girls that young who are pregnant, but it was interesting because I really got to look into their lives and see that they are still just girls, and they have the same needs that any other 16-year old would have. But due to their situation, it's easy for people to judge and I hate that. It was nice to be able to see the humanity and the love that these girls have and just the struggle that they've gone through."
Watching the developing relationship between Apple and her father played with a careful balance of trepidation and strength by Brendan Fraser (who, so moved by Kathy DiFiore and the Several Sources program, donated his entire paycheck for this film to the organization on shooting's end), is an interesting dance. Hudgens and Fraser have a wonderful chemistry and watching that develop in character is something that I would have liked to see more in GIMME SHELTER. Fraser has this uncanny ability to retain his own boyish naivete and uncertainty while trying to balance it with the responsibilities of adulthood within a character. While Tom is married with two elementary aged kids, around Apple, Fraser gives Tom this great new father nervousness that makes your heart stop and go "awww."
As June, Rosario Dawson is one tweaked out mess. You have no sympathy or empathy for the character and at times, it feels as if Dawson takes June so far out into left field that it feels disingenuous. However, to her credit, she immersed herself not only in her own physical transformation but emotional transformation. The result is startling to the point of unrecognizability. For Dawson, "[it] was important because these two characters are so volatile towards each other and they don't have that intimacy. There isn't that safety and connection and communication. . . So much about this really caught my attention, and then, I had to put all of that aside because I'm playing the addict and how disturbing and intense that actually was. I had intellectualized it, but I hadn't really put myself in that position. This person truly believed that it wasn't their fault. It's been all self-denial, lack of responsibility, no self-reflection, and to do so would be so confronting it would probably break her so she just refuses. . .And just when you think she's going to get it, she pushes it aside because it would be too much for her to see. She can't even be happy for her daughter trying to have something different for herself, because it would again only confront her to realize that she made bad choices that she doesn't want to look at. I think that's something relatable to all of us. . .My challenge in that was showing the monster that she's created herself to be, but that that monster has the possibility of living in all of us and that we all can relate to that, and that's how bad it can actually get."
Physically demanding with strenuous fight scenes between Dawson and Hudgens, "I went home battered. I know [Hudgens] had some bruises, but for me, I got in a lot of fights with this girl. This woman was just all over the place and I was fighting with some of the girls from the shelter who don't do fight scenes!"
If you know Kathy DiFiore or have even seen photos of her, you have to do a double take when looking at Ann Dowd in the role. Dowd is wonderful. Thanks to hair and make-up, she really captures the visual essence of Kathy while her performance is spot-on Jersey/East Coast strength and independence. A telling scene is Dowd's emotion with the passing of the donation baskets within the church as she brings layers to the character of DiFiore that hint at the slightly skeevy edge that people do feel when being hit up for money and the "downtrodden" are paraded before them like sheep before a slaughter. There's just enough self-serving edge to satisfy movie-goers on both sides of the do-gooder fence. Nicely played by Dowd.
As Father Frank McCarthy, James Earl Jones is perfection. Solid, grounding. He gives the film heart and hope. He is the foundation from which the stories really take shape. And I say stories because GIMME SHELTER feels like two movies and Ron Krauss couldn't decide which one to make - Apple's story or Kathy's story. While they intersect, each is so strong - and equally important - that I see them more as two separate stories with two separate movies as opposed to trying to make each one so focused and attention-getting. By trying to meld two strong stories as opposed to making one a sub-plot, there are moments when watching that the film becomes a Push Me - Pull You experience.
Adding to the overall experience is the addition of some of the actual shelter residents and their babies - 23 babies in all. While the girls proved invaluable to Krauss in truthfully scripting story and in aiding Hudgens to bring truth to her performance, the babies presented their own challenges. While Kathy DiFiore herself proved a capable baby wrangler, 10 crew members, unaccustomed to working with children or babies, still quit after the first week creating shooting havoc for director Krauss.
Cinematography with its framing is particularly effective within the shelter, creating a claustrophobic sensibility that bodes well as both the cramped emotional experience but also a metaphoric womb-like state with the girls being kept safe and warm and protected within the confines of the shelter. Kudos to cinematographer Alain Marcoen and writer/director Krauss for the wonderfully blocking and framing within the confines of the actual shelter. Also notable is the natural lighting that per Krauss was achieved by mingling regular home incandescents with some brighter light for the camera.
A solid piece of filmmaking. Strong emotional performance by Hudgens. But again, the focus on Kathy's story and Apple's story is so strong with neither playing a sub-plot that it detracts from the overall power of the film. These are stories that each deserve their own film.
Written and Directed by Ron Krauss
Cast: Vanessa Hudgens, Rosario Dawson, Brendan Fraser, James Earl Jones
For more information on Several Sources Foundation and the work of Kathy DiFiore, go to http://www.severalsourcesfd.org/