Why does it make any difference to our experience of a film if it bears the label of being based on a true story? The Coen brothers famously played with the power of this statement in Fargo (1996); by believing events actually did happen, are we more willing to forgive the twists and turns, no matter where they lead? Is truth really stranger than fiction?
I don’t think it really makes any difference any more. We know to accept all such claims with a pinch of salt, and even if the plot is an exact replica of someone’s life, the artistry of the movie-maker will always be in play to tweak our emotions in a certain direction. Maybe nothing we can see on screen is exactly true any more. And those films that claim to be based on a true story seem to have all, sadly, developed the same manipulative bag of tricks.
Gimme Shelter uses all these tricks: the shaky camera in action sequences, the extreme close ups in tense moments, the meaningful music during moments of revelation. And that’s just in the first five minutes. ‘True stories’ have become couched in recognisable, comfortable filmic terms that any of us could pick out in ten seconds while flitting through TV channels. Having said that, this film does a very respectable job within the mould that it never threatens to break. So, if you like this genre, this is a good example of it.
Agnes “Apple” Bailey (played by High School Musical star Vanessa Hudgens) is a teenager who lives with an abusive mother until circumstances push her into attempting to run away. She tracks down her birth father, and makes contact with some incredible people who try to help her through providing a safe place for her. It’s the kind of institution that gives you hope for humanity, basically – with good souls like this around, you can’t write off the human race just yet. The film is gruelling at times, and also uplifting. It doesn’t skimp on emotion.
It takes itself very seriously, and gives actors quite unrealistic dialogue in which they discuss their points of view. Thank goodness, then, that writer/director Ron Krauss has a really great cast to keep this from being terrible. Vanessa Hudgens has a power that makes her watchable, and her blazing eyes carry us through some of the more eloquent outbursts. Brendan Fraser plays her father. He’s weak and pudgy, and used to home comforts, but when Apple re-enters his life he begins to find some courage, and he makes this change as a character extremely well in a few scenes. Through such films as The Mummy (1999), Gods And Monsters (1998), and Inkheart (2009), Fraser has used his rare likeability to make an audience really warm to him, and he does it again here. I think it’s a much overlooked talent.
In fact, all the performances are strong. Rosario Dawson plays the mother with commitment to the nastiness, and James Earl Jones makes an appearance, bringing the gravitas you’d expect to his role as a Catholic priest. Ann Dowd plays a key part as Kathy, the woman who runs a shelter for teenagers, with warmth. I felt everyone’s commitment to the project. There were times when I felt that the choices of those in desperate circumstances were not presented fairly, but I can’t denigrate the passion of those involved.
One final thing – Gimme Shelter is, I think, one of those rare films where watching the ‘Making Of…’ documentary on the DVD might be worth considering before you sit through the film itself. It’s a short piece that shows the cast and crew meeting the real people portrayed in the story, and Ron Krauss talks about his belief in the film. It made my world-weary approach to that old ‘based on a true story’ moniker drop away, and infused my memories of the movie, bringing it to life in a new way.
It’s very easy to be jaded about true stories, particularly when they follow the unwritten rule book on how to present such events. As a piece of emotional drama, Gimme Shelter fulfilled its remit as a drama without provoking much enthusiasm in me. It took some excellent performances, and a strong documentary, to lend further perspective to a story that deserves to be not just true, but also believable.
Gimme Shelter is available on DVD and Blu-ray now.
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