Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 40 min.
Our content advisories (1-10): Violence 4; Language 2; Sex/Nudity 4.
Our star rating (1-5): 4
All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten in God’s sight.
This is not a reissue of the 1970 documentary about the Rolling Stones, but a fictionalized “based on a true story” film. Written and directed by Ronald Krauss, it is about a troubled teenaged girl. Agnes “Apple” Bailey (Vanessa Hudgens) lives—no, exists—with her addicted, prostitute mother June (Rosario Dawson), never feeling wanted or valued. Indeed, we learn that she has been passed around during all her 16 years from mother to foster care to institutions to foster care, the last family of which included a husband who one dark night wanted to touch her in an anything but fatherly way. Then it was back to her mother.
She runs away, and, with just an old envelope addressed to her, leaves New York on a Grey Hound Bus, arriving a taxi ride later at a gated suburban mansion in New Jersey. When no one answers the doorbell, she walks around to see if anyone is home. The police are called and soon arrive. She is about to be taken away when a car pulls up. In it are Tom Fitzpatrick (Brendan Fraser), his wife Joanne (Stephanie Szostak), and their two young children. When he comes over to the police car and sees Apple and talks with her, he realizes that she is his daughter that he sired when he was an immature 19 year-old student in his first year of college. The old envelope contained the letter he had sent to her some time back, its return address being the for her tracking him down.
Joanne is understandable shaken by the appearance of her husband’s daughter, but agrees for her to stay the night. Tom calls her Agnes, but she quickly tells him it’s Apple. Supper is a very tense affair, with the young Fitzpatrick son and daughter curious, but put off by their parents. Apple becomes sick, and Joanne correctly guesses that the girl is pregnant. After intense discussion, Tom and Joanne decide that Agnes must undergo an abortion because she is not fit at the moment to become a mother. Not having been a party of that decision Apple objects. Tom tries to reason with her, telling her she must turn the page and move on. “Oh yes, ‘turn the page,’ just like YOU ‘turned the page’ ON ME.” Dissenting from their decision, Apple runs away, and there follows some harsh times on the street, eating out of dumpsters and that night seeking shelter in an unlocked car. When a pimp tries to pick her up she steals his van. Inexperienced in driving, she crashes and is taken to a hospital.
Her first visitor is the Roman Catholic chaplain Fr. Frank McCarthy (James Earl Jones), whom she attempts to run off, telling him she is not worth his attention. He wants her to go to a shelter for pregnant teenagers run by a friend, but the girl vetoes this, saying she has suffered enough already from institutions. Eventually she does consent, with Several Sources Shelter founder and manager Kathy DiFiore (Ann Dowd) welcoming her. Although Apple starts off on the wrong foot with another girl, she slowly gives up her hostile attitude, opening up to the other girls. There is an uneasy but poignant scene in which she and several new friends sneak into the office at night and, finding their files stacked together, each one reads aloud the case notes of their past and their prognosis by caseworkers. All have dark years of abuse and suffering, which leads them to bond all the more closer together.
Unlike most of the other girls, Apple still has a mother and a father, and because she is under age, each of them arrives simultaneously but separately at the clinic to reclaim her. Kathy, despite Apple’s pleading, reluctantly tells her that she has to let her go back home to her mother, lest the home be sued. However, when June abuses her verbally in front of the director, and then slaps her hard, Kathy lays aside her legal fears and goes into her protective mother mode, ordering June out of the building. Sensing Apple’s emotional turmoil, she will not even let Tom, who had been outside, to talk with his daughter.
The film provides quite a glimpse of what a troubled, pregnant teenager goes through. Some critics have panned the film, despite its many emotional scenes that ring true, calling it an anti-abortion propaganda piece. It is also interesting to note that these same critics are very dismissive of any film that hints at a Christian message, even if it is dealt with in a non-preachy way. There can be no denying which side of the abortion controversy filmmaker Ronald Krauss is on (he wrote his script while a guest in one of the real Kathy DiFiore’s shelters). But to dismiss a film because of its Pro-Life stance seems hardly fair. As one who believes in a woman’s right to choose I am glad when a desperate young woman, supported by compassionate people such as Fr. Frank and Kathy, decides to take the hard road of either single motherhood or adoption, rather than terminating her pregnancy. If we really believe in “a woman’s right to choose,” then we should be open to and support her decision to say “No” to an abortion, especially, as in this story, when taking her to the abortion clinic had not been her choice, but that of her father and stepmother who did not want the inconvenience of sheltering a daughter and her baby.
There are many harrowing moments in the film, brought home by the powerful performance of Vanessa Hudgens, who has come a long way from her frothy Disney queen roles. And of course, it is always a delight to see James Earl Jones in a film, this time as a compassionate priest who respects the right of a troubled soul to say No to him, but who will not give up on her. Ann Dowd is also wonderful as the tough love head of the shelter who puts herself at risk in protecting Apple when it becomes apparent that returning her to her custody would destroy the youngster’s soul. The supporting cast, many of them we are told are real shelter dwellers (one of them even was one of the several mothers whose stories were combined into Apple’s), is also excellent. They have formed such a strong supportive sisterhood that we can appreciate Apple’s decision at the end of the film. The once lost girl has found not one but two families at the end of her ordeal. Maybe sometimes it is possible to have your cake and eat it too.
Before closing, I want to relate one of the most moving and telling moments in the film: for me it came when the content of the envelope that Apple had carefully saved was revealed to us. It was a short letter of apology and hope that her then 19 year-old father had written to her long ago, revealing why she had insisted several times on being called Apple, and not Agnes. Agnes, deriving from the Latin word for lamb, is the name of a victim in traditional theology. The name “Apple” comes from the closing remark of her then immature father, who, probably unwittingly was quoting from Psalm 17.
By choosing and clinging to it Agnes/Apple shows us how deeply she longed for the affectionate connection that is at the heart of a family during all the dark days of her first 16 years. Her short life has been a hard journey, nor would the next phase, that of raising a child while still so very young, be easy. But she has arrived at the bright phase of having, as mentioned above, not one but two family circles of love and respect. Whatever problems she would face in raising a child while tending to her own education, she would not face them alone.