You are likely not prepared for the true-story raw reality faced by Agnes “Apple” Bailey in Gimme Shelter opening in theaters this weekend.

Vanessa Hudgens in Gimme Shelter

Vanessa Hudgens in Gimme Shelter

When we meet her, Apple (played by Vanessa Hudgens) is willing herself into the courage to make a phone call, reaching out to the father she has never met. She has a plan to flee her abusive mother, June (Rosaria Dawson) so strung out on meth that she begs, threatens, curses, hits, and professes love in an unbroken string of desperate profane venom when she sees Apple in the cab ready to go. Apple makes it out alive. But when the cabbie asks to see her money to pay for the interstate ride to New Jersey, she tries to steal the car and gets literally kicked to the curb on the highway.

We don’t know her well, but her surly demeanor makes us wonder if Apple doesn’t just deserve the trouble she’s trapped in.

Things only get worse when she’s arrested for prowling outside Dad’s mansion. Tom (Brendan Frasier) brings her inside, and while she’s wolfing food asks, “How old are you now, Angie–14? 15?”

“I’m 16,” she spits, “And my name is Apple, don’t you remember? Apple, not Angie!!”

Somehow the bright interior of this lavish home suddenly appears much more menacing than the dingy squalor Apple just escaped. And right on cue Tom and his wife Joanna (Stephanie Szostak) respond with civilized contempt, offering money and referrals to a social worker before coercing Apple to abort the pregnancy that is a revelation even to her. (“I only did it once.”)

Apple decides to run from the abortion Joanna has arranged. Now forced to sleep in cars and on the street, she lands in the hospital where Chaplain Frank (James Earl Jones) befriends her and arranges a placement in a shelter for pregnant teens. Apple is infuriated, seeing her history of foster care and shelters as proof of her lack of value to anyone.

But she clings to a pair of ultrasound images of her unborn child. And for the sake of the child, she agrees to go.

Kathy (Ann Dowd) welcomes Apple to the shelter home with a mix of bulletproof faith and maternal warmth. It’s disarming–not just to us but to those who oppose her steely and measured determination to protect her girls.

I’ve seldom seen a portrait of courage so achingly portrayed as the heart of young Apple Bailey. As the adults around her call in the parents, she must stand them all down in order to stand. She also faces down a rebellious roommate at the shelter and an attempt on her life. By meeting others who are learning to cope in the same circumstance, Apple learns to trust–and when not to.

At the end I was grateful for such an unsympathetic introduction to this character. For the Apples of this world don’t need our pity. Teen pregnancy is not an insurmountable social ill requiring case workers and big budgets either. Not even when the teen is a homeless desperate runaway dragging trunks of baggage just trying to survive.

All they need is love.

I’ve often wondered what I would have done if a place like Kathy’s had been offered to me when I was young and pregnant on the run. I wasn’t fleeing abuse, just chasing hard after a good life without the burden of unwed motherhood. Unlike Apple, I had the advantage of loving parents and enough education to secure not just a job but a career. But I had a poverty of spirit and moral backbone that would have made me bold to face down my fears and give life to my child. The beauty of Apple’s choice betrays the cowardice from which I suffered and which I believe is at the heart of every choice for abortion. Forgive me if you are suffering from the effects of a coerced abortion–the cowardice is often not that of the mother. Having been victimized and brutalized by so many for so long, Apple rejected the choice of her own well-being over the life of her child. If, instead your strength failed, as mine did, just know that God can change the coward’s heart and make us brave today. And if you coerced another, look to Tom’s redemption as your hope. It’s never too late to do the right thing now.

Gimme Shelter is a soaring triumph of the human heart–a blessing of a film and one I can’t wait to watch again.

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