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In his introduction to George MacDonald: An Anthology, C. S. Lewis wrote, "There are indeed, passages, many of them in this collection, where the wisdom and (I would dare call it) the holiness that are in him triumph over and even burn away the baser elements in his style."
Lewis was wrestling with the "difficult critical problem" that the minister-turned-author presented. On technique and craftsmanship alone, Lewis says, he could not place MacDonald in "the first rank" of literary artists. But Lewis, as a Christian, fears that some qualities of MacDonald's writing—things he recognizes and cherishes—will not be valued properly by those who judge a work on its technical excellence alone.
Lewis sometimes allows holiness to triumph over style when acting in his role as critic, and today, that might border on the professionally scandalous. But it's a good model for the Christian who strives to have both intellectual and spiritual integrity. The Christian doesn't have to call bad art good—but he doesn't need to apologize for insisting that some art that gets called bad by everyone else really is good.
I've seen more poor Christian craftsmanship championed in my life than I've seen adequate craftsmanship elevated by its "wisdom" and "holiness." But examples of the latter exist.
Gimme Shelter is a good movie in the moral sense of the word, and it's certainly not a bad movie in the technical sense of the word. Its presentation isn't as good as its message, and it lacks some nuance and focus—the characters in particular don't have as much depth and dimension as we might have liked—but their situations are dramatic, and that comes through. The writing is slightly above average for the genre. The cast is uniformly excellent. Vanessa Hudgens will probably get a lot of well-meaning but misguided praise for being unrecognizable, but that's just make-up and wardrobe. She conveys both her character's toughness and her emotional vulnerability without over-emoting.
As the film opens, Apple (known as Agnes to all but her father) is cutting her hair and trying to drum up the courage to leave the custody of her mother, June (Rosario Dawson). The getaway isn't a clean one. (One sign of the script's efficiency: Hudgens and Dawson are able to convey the entire back story of this girl and her mother in one argument.)
Apple finds and connects briefly with her father (Brendan Fraser), but when he and his second wife find out that Apple is pregnant, they push her to have an abortion. Eventually, through the intercession of a hospital chaplain (James Earl Jones), she finds herself at a shelter run by Kathy Difiore (Ann Dowd). Difiore is an actual person, the founder of Several Sources Shelters, and in an interview with me she said that while Apple was based on more than one shelter resident, writer/director Ron Krauss worked on the script for over a year, often having "script nights" at the shelter to help make the screenplay more authentic.
So it's surprising that the third act of the film (at the shelter) is dramatically the weakest. But none of the other residents of the shelter get fully drawn. Apple has a change of heart about a key decision near the end of the film, and it is so sudden that for the first time the script calls on Hudgens to deliver a dramatic monologue rather than talk naturally. This seems to come from nowhere—a fact reinforced by teens at a test screening, who interpreted Apple's decision as a rejection of her father, rather than an embrace of her life at the shelter.
But the movie remains deeply disturbing and emotionally compelling. The film's pro-life message is so strong in part because it is lived out rather than presented in the form of a rhetorical argument. Apple's inner moral compass overrides the devil's logic that the abortion is a necessary step towards a renewed relationship with her biological father.
Her father and step-mother are not presented as self-aware monsters but as deeply morally confused. Their arguments for the abortion—and their inability to see the faulty assumptions on which they stand—are less an indictment of them, more of the cultural environment that helped spawn their attitudes. Dad never disavows his advice to terminate the pregnancy, nor does he seem aware that if his argument is carried to its logical conclusion, it implies to Apple that she herself should have been aborted. Hudgens's portrayal is spot on as she shows that Apple's emotional scars stemming from dad's rejection are as deep and painful as any of the physical marks left by her mother's abuse.
Although the film has a strong pro-life message, it doesn't reduce Christian faith or social justice to just that one issue. Difiore said, "I think we inhibit ourselves when we tie ourselves to nomenclature." She added: "The film is 'pro' a lot of things. It's pro-compassion. It's pro-God. It's really pro-love." That it cares about being all those things makes Gimme Shelter an easy film to endorse despite its less polished style.
At PG-13, Gimme Shelter is perhaps grittier than many inspirational films, but it avoids the more explicit representations of the world it depicts that might offend the sensibilities of its viewers. Disturbing content is suggested rather displayed. The scene in which Apple is attacked by her mother wielding a razor blade is the most violent. In it, director Ron Krauss uses some quick cuts and careful editing to avoid showing what is happening. There is some interpersonal violence. Apple's mother strikes Kathy as she tries to guide her out of the shelter, and Apple is momentarily threatened by a man who senses she is homeless and appears to try to kidnap her. Apple's child birthing scene is loud but filmed chastely, and while it is (naturally) implied that Apple has been sexually active, that fact is only spoken of, not depicted.
Kenneth R. Morefield is an Associate Professor of English at Campbell University. He is the editor of Faith and Spirituality in Masters of World Cinema, Volumes I & II, and the founder of 1More Film Blog.