After former Disney kid Vanessa Hudgens scored the spotlight with a string of family-friendly 'High School Musical' movies, she began the tricky trek from child star to respected ingénue. Her first step was to shake up her image with steamy roles in controversial features like 'Sucker Punch' and 'Spring Breakers.' Now with the coming-of-age indie 'Gimme Shelter,' Hudgens strives to show how committed she is to her craft, by casting vanity out the door and digging deep into drama.

Based on a true story, 'Gimme Shelter' centers on 16-year-old Apple (Hudgens), who is at her breaking point sharing a ratty apartment with her strung out and abusive mother. At first she flees to the home of the wealthy Wall Street dad she never knew. But with the discovery that she's pregnant, Apple is forced to find a home in a shelter for teen moms. There, she learns the real meaning of family and is offered the second chance she so desperately desires.

Apple is unlike any role we've seen Hudgens take on before. She's not flirtatious or even friendly. Instead, she's a deeply wounded girl who is instinctively aggressive, a tornado of rage and resentment. She scares the adults she comes in contact with, even if they mean to help her. Hudgens completely commits herself to this role, bravely going for a physical transformation that includes tattered finger nails, facial piercings, neck tattoos, pimples, bags like bruises under her eyes, a crude pixie cut and clothes that completely swamp her curves. She speaks in a growl, and her arms are quick to lash out in defense of herself and her baby. Admittedly, Hudgens's performance lacks subtlety at points, but it's fascinatingly raw and shows a real growth for the evolving actress.

Similarly giving herself over to the demands of this earnest drama is Rosario Dawson as Apple's drug-addicted mom. Dawson is almost unrecognizable, covered in bruises and sporting severely damaged teeth. But beneath all this and the torment her character heaps on Apple, Dawson still manages to carve out a complicated figure who deserves some sympathy. Unfortunately neither Brendan Fraser and Stephanie Szostak as Apple's bio-dad and step-mom, nor Emily Meade as Apple's rebellious roomie, can match this level of performance. Instead, their portrayals are painfully one-note and ridiculous, but it's not all their fault. Shining a light on the incredible struggles disadvantaged teen girls face, 'Gimme Shelter' is very well-intentioned, but it is not well-made.

This isn't writer-director Ron Krauss' first feature, but it feels like it should be. The dialogue is awful, mostly made up of on-the-nose exposition lines and clichéd motivational slogans like "stop dancing with your demons." Falling into the trap of new screenwriters, he gives nearly every character a monologue to explain their personal philosophy. While these might attract actors to a script, it does nothing for pace. This lack of nuance infects every aspect of the film. Scenes end abruptly after hammering their plot points home with the subtlety of s sledgehammer. Repeated use of fades to black as a transition further proves Krauss' amateur skills, as if he can't think of any other way to cut from one sequence to the next. So, the narrative feels like a blur with Apple's growing belly -- hidden beneath her oversized shirts -- being the key way to chart time.

Worse yet, the adults in Apple's life operate under no apparent sense of logic. Perhaps Krauss meant for their motives to be inexplicable, as they might seem to teenaged Apple. Maybe the film, which never spends a scene away from its heroine, is meant to be that deeply embedded in her perspective. However, this isn't a choice reflected in the camerawork by POV, or anywhere else that we could decipher. So assuming that seems to give Krauss too much credit.

As one adult after another treats this clearly hurting kid with distrust and disgust, 'Gimme Shelter' becomes bleak and hard to absorb. By the time Krauss switches gear -- abruptly and without grace -- to the story's inspiring section, we already felt bored and battered by the grim world he'd created. The film's most important scenes should be Apple's forming of friendships at the shelter. But these bonding moments are so rushed and slapdash they feel like afterthoughts. Basically, Hudgens gave her all for 'Gimme Shelter,' but Krauss didn't have the talent to give the cinematic support to create a movie worthy of her performance.