In the last few decades, there has seemingly been only one favored method for former Disney starlets to break away from their squeaky-clean images and prove their retail worth to grown-up Hollywood. From singers like Britney Spears and Miley Cyrus to actresses like Lindsay Lohan and Selena Gomez, the first order of business once they leave the Mouse House is to accept roles in R-rated, sexually charged productions.
Vanessa Hudgens’ career path has, up to this point, been no different. Shortly after wrapping the last High School Musical, she starred in such explicit films as Machete Kills and (along with Gomez) Spring Breakers. But with her latest role, Hudgens proves there is another, better way for young actresses to showcase their maturity and initiate a new phase in their professional lives: taking compelling performances in small but morally serious films.
Gimme Shelter, the inspiring, pro-life movie based on the lives of real pregnant teens taken in by Kathy DiFiore at the Several Sources shelter in New Jersey, suffers from a few of the shortcomings common to message films. Several characters come off stock—particularly an out-of-the-picture Wall Street father and his cold-fish wife; tragedy after tragedy occurs so quickly, it’s hard to emotionally absorb them, and the film could certainly do with some quiet, introspective moments to go along with scenes of high, screaming drama. But the performances make Gimme Shelter, rated PG-13 for language, well worth viewing despite a narrative hiccup or two.
The normally lovely Hudgens is nearly unrecognizable as Apple Bailey, a pierced, tattooed 16-year-old with a baby on the way. After fleeing from her abusive, drug-addicted mom (a similarly transformed Rosario Dawson), she reaches out to the father (Brendan Fraser) she’s never met. He and his well-to-do wife have only one suggestion for Apple—get an abortion and pretend the pregnancy never happened. With nowhere else to turn, Apple steals a car and winds up in the emergency room where she meets Father Frank McCarthy (James Earl Jones). Jones assures her that despite appearances, God has a plan not only for Apple’s life, but also for the baby she carries, and he offers to help her find it.
Dawson, Fraser, and Jones are all old hands at the movie game and prove the value of experience by providing Hudgens a strong supporting field. But the bulk of the credit must go to Hudgens for picking up the ball and running with it.
It’s always been darkly amusing that an industry that routinely parrots the values of feminism even more routinely exploits young actresses, assuring them that showcasing their bodies is the only way to establish themselves as adult stars. Yet the higher road of taking good parts in good scripts has always been the preferred route of Disney’s male alums.
We may know Ryan Gosling best as the romantic hero of The Notebook, but he established himself as a leading man in The Believer, a gripping movie about a Jewish student with anti-Semitic views. Zac Efron’s first non-teen role was in the PG-13 Me and Orson Welles, an independent drama that won rave reviews from critics without Efron ever having to disrobe or simulate a single sex act.
With her tremendous, affecting turn as Apple Bailey, Hudgens proves that girls can play that game too.