“Based on a true story” reads the opening slate of this film in white text against a black background, the “Based on” fading into the black leaving only “a true story,” glittering like the Cheshire Cat’s smile. If it were an honest introduction to the film, it might read something different: something like “Based on a billboard.” Not just any billboard, this is one of those Prolife Across America billboards that features multicultural babies in cute costumes doling out insultingly simplistic advice and pseudoscientific facts; “Real Men Love Babies” or “My Life is Precious!”
Director: Ron Krauss
Producers: Joshua Amir, Jeff Billingsley, Dama Claire, Paul Hellerman, Ron Krauss, Jeff Rice, Scott Steindorf
Writer: Ron Krauss
Cinematographer: Alain Marcoen
Editors: Marie-Helene Dozo, Mark Suit
Cast: Vanessa Hudgens, Rosario Dawson, Brendan Fraser, Stephanie Szostak, James Earl Jones, Ann Dowd
Premiere: October 17, 2013 – Heartland Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: January 24, 2014
US Distributor: Roadside Attractions
The film has a promising start, as we watch our main character, Agnes “Apple” Bailey (Vanessa Hudgens), chop off her hair in the mirror and then promptly run away from her abusive, drug-addicted mother June (Rosario Dawson). From there she is off to New Jersey to seek shelter with an estranged father whose address she knows from a letter she has cherished since childhood. Arriving at the tacky New Jersey mansion of her father, Tom (Brendan Fraser), the film’s real purpose can be divined. Tom’s waspy wife Joanna (Stephanie Szostak) instantly surmises that Apple is pregnant, and the catholic morality tale can commence.
What follows comes directly from the film’s source—the prolife billboard. Apple is given a sonogram, and listens to the baby’s heartbeat (as we know from our experience with said billboards, heartbeats can be heard 18 days from conception). Then, pressured into it by her new dad, she goes to an abortion clinic where a rude nurse tells her to hurry up, seeming hell bent on making abortion clinics as unpleasant as possible for teenage girls.
Understandably, Apple runs away again, eventually ending up in a hospital room where a mincing hospital chaplain (James Earl Jones) leads Apple along the path of the righteous, eventually to a catholic-church-funded shelter for pregnant teens. Once there, she drops her rebellious attitude (and nose ring, short hair, and androgynous clothing) for the joys of traditional motherhood. By its conclusion, and the near vomit-inducing credits sequence featuring dozens of happy babies, it is clear that the filmic elements here are window dressing for its manipulative nucleus.
Her own decision is never really considered; in all the rush from runaway to home to hospital to shelter, Apple never has a chance to decide for herself about whether she wants to keep the baby. The film just presumes, as many of these billboards do, that because she is pregnant, she intrinsically wants the child and is ready to care for it. The universe of this film is just too prolife to allow her any agency.
Beyond its deceptive ulterior motives and ultra-conservative values, the script is heavy-handed and crude. While Hudgens does the best she can with it, her performance has the stilted cadence of slam poetry or spoken word, a far cry from the mysterious naturalism she was able to convey in Spring Breakers (2013). This is Ron Krauss’s first feature, and it shows, with characters that are little more than stereotypes playing into his political agenda; felt most strikingly in the scene where June tells Apple how good it is she is having a baby so the State will give them more money—a literal enactment of the Welfare Queen myth that comes only moments before a cut to a photograph of the saintly Ronald Reagan.
What’s more, and back to the film’s introductory placard, the “true story” that this film is based on isn’t even Apple’s, but rather Kathy DiFiore (played by Ann Dowd), the founder of the shelter where Apple learns about motherhood. Every twist and turn in the plot is just as phony as the abortion clinic or the welfare mom. Nefarious, deceptive, and destructive, this is not a film, just prolife propaganda in sheep’s clothing. Why Krauss decided to use the same title as the legendary Rolling Stones documentary by the Maysles brothers is beyond me.