Gimme Shelter, the movie starring Vanessa Hudgens, Rosario Dawson, Brendan Fraser, and Anne Dowd, is a straightforward and unpretentious film about an unmarried pregnant teenage girl who chooses to have her baby rather than an abortion. Written and directed by Ronald Krauss, the film is both uplifting and instructive. In telling the story of Agnes Bailey, played by Vanessa Hudgens (the character actually prefers “Apple” for reasons that become clear later), and those who try to help and support her, the film implicitly underscores that pro-life commitment and advocacy is far more personal and individual than it is political. Thus, her story helps to cast into relief three critical themes: the meaning and exercise of “choice” in the abortion context, the importance of private entities that are able to mediate, and the need for fathers.
Agnes Bailey is the sixteen-year-old daughter of a drug-addicted prostitute. Rosario Dawson plays Agnes’s mother and gives the best performance in the film as a woman who is cruel and manipulative, but also fragile and despairing. Desperate to escape, Agnes makes a rather harrowing journey to the home of the father she never knew—played by Brenden Fraser. He is now married with two young children and works on Wall Street. We later learn he was on the verge of entering college when she was born. He left a letter for her, expressing his regret and sorrow that he would never know her; it is through this letter that she ultimately finds him. Rather uneasily, her father and his wife welcome her into their home. When she soon discovers she is pregnant, they insist on an abortion.
But Agnes has seen the sonogram—and she bolts. Running from the clinic where her stepmother has taken her for the abortion, she undertakes another hazardous journey. After crashing a car in her panic to get away, she is injured and hospitalized. The hospital chaplain happens to be a Fr. McCarthy, played by James Earl Jones, who introduces Agnes to Kathy DiFiore, the real-life inspiration for the movie, played by Ann Dowd. Kathy DiFiore runs a home for young, pregnant girls and single mothers, and Agnes finds her place, her own home, among them.
Agnes is stubborn, willful, and independent. These are critical character traits the film highlights—because it underscores that the pro-life position is still counter-cultural and coercion is still a strong element in the decision to abort. Indeed, the narrative helpfully reveals the modern contours of “choice” in the context of abortion: when ideological and cultural assumptions favor abortion and one is young and poor, how freely does one choose? So, Agnes’s willful rebel streak serves her well. She keeps her baby because she keeps her own counsel; she is alone when she looks at the sonogram results and the viewer understands from her expression that she has instinctively recognized that this is her baby. Her father and stepmother’s arguments that she will be unable to care for a child at this point in her life are ultimately unpersuasive, but one can imagine how powerful such arguments might be to someone alone and vulnerable.
Agnes may have made her decision alone but, thanks to Kathy and at the home she creates, the struggles and challenges that follow are a shared experience. The strong community upon which Agnes can rely is suggestive of, and a tribute to, the generous and quiet efforts by churches, communities and individuals who support women who want to keep their babies but don’t have the material and emotional resources to do it on their own. One sees an implicit but dramatic contrast between Agnes’s damaged, almost ferile mother who is both dependent on, and doomed by, the “system” and the girls Kathy shelters and nurtures to independence, with community and parish support. Indeed, the scenes of Kathy and her home recall the words of Mary Ann Glendon who once commented about abortion rights that we can do better than to leave women alone with their rights. Agnes, and the other girls in Kathy’s home, clearly have not been abandoned to their rights.
The film also suggests that fathers are not always eager to discard their children and that even tough, strong girls like Agnes want and need a caring father—and that they suffer when they don’t have one. In his early letter to Agnes, her father refers to her as “the apple of my eye”—thus her insistence on being called “Apple.” It is the one expression of affection she has from him until they meet and she clings to it because it gives her strength and hope.
As noted above, this film is simple and straightforward; it is not high art, nor does it pretend to be. The film is flawed and, as critics have noted, it does fall into cliché and melodrama in telling Agnes’ story. The film also glosses over struggles that girls like Apple invariably face and the acting sometimes lacks polish. Yet, in some ways, this rough approach is fitting for a movie about such a topic. The trenches of the pro-life movement are not the realm of the practiced professional, but of the compassionate and convicted amateur working on a shoestring budget and donated clothing to cobble together life-affirming alternatives for girls and women.