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Every January, pundits publish lists of yesteryear fads and technologies that today’s newborns will never experience — things like rotary-dial telephones, eight-track tapes and video-rental stores. Watching the well-intentioned teen-pregnancy drama “Gimme Shelter,” I was reminded of the bygone phenomenon called the after-school special.

In the ’70s and ’80s, when the TV networks had a captive audience, the late-afternoon airwaves were filled with cautionary tales about teenagers at the crossroads. In the cable era, some of that topical storytelling moved to series television, where you might get, say, a special two-part episode in which Hannah Montana succumbs to peer pressure.

Although it’s superficially grungy, this true story isn’t much more substantive than something that star Vanessa Hudgens might have made for the Disney Channel and considerably less shocking than her career gambit in “Spring Breakers.”

Hudgens plays 16-year-old Apple, who lives in a New York flophouse with her drug-addicted mother, June (Rosario Dawson with rotten dental prosthetics). June expects Apple to follow in her footsteps, turning tricks and collecting fat welfare checks. But Apple has different dreams — finding the rich, white father who abandoned her at birth — and in a variation on a prison-break scene, she hacks off her hair, escapes from the hotel and takes a taxi as deep into New Jersey as she can afford.

But Wall Street executive Tom (Brendan Fraser) turns out to be a feckless fussbudget, with two younger kids who are contemptuous of the unannounced visitor and a shrew wife (Stephanie Szosta) who soon abandons Apple at the drive-through abortionist.

Apple ends up by befriended by kindly old priest Frank (James Earl Jones, phoning it in), who delivers her to a shelter for unwed mothers. If you can’t figure out that a rough start including rules infractions and cat fights leads to Apple pledging allegiance to the sisterhood, you must have been raised without a television.

The only thing that qualifies as a surprise in “Gimme Shelter” is the sappy ending in which Apple makes a choice for which her baby may never forgive her. If the kid ever learns about rotary-dial telephones, grandpa Tom should be expecting a call for help.


What “Gimme Shelter” • Two stars out of four • Rating PG-13 • Run time 1:40 • Content Mature thematic elements, some drug content, violence and strong language

Joe Williams is the film critic for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.