It is entirely possible, wholly feasible, and ridiculously strange that chubby-cheeked tweens who first became aware of Vanessa Hudgens thanks to the wholesome charms of the High School Musical franchise are now able to catch her burning up the big screen in any one of her numerous wannabe-gritty new roles. Children (children! Actual children!) that first saw her dancing across their television screens as a fresh-faced Disney high schooler can now purchase tickets to see her going gritty in a big way at their local multiplex. (This, of course, assumes that your local multiplex is playing Harmony Korine films, which does sound sort of cool.)
The first High School Musical hit the small screen back in 2006, a Disney Channel production filled with new talents (Zac Efron), poppy songs, and a saccarhine love story. Hudgens starred as new girl in school Gabriella Montez, a smarty pants sweetheart who had spent her entire childhood moving around and was thrilled to be able to close out her last two years of high school in just one location (sadly, this location was Albquruque, New Mexico). Falling in love with Efron’s Big Man on Campus Troy Bolton was just icing on the cake. And then, well, we suppose the revelation that the pair were both skilled singers, dancers, and actors (along with all their friends!) who could dominate their school’s theater program was the equaivalnt of sprinkles. The costumes might as well have been candles.
The first HSM was followed by another straight-to-TV sequel, High School Musical 2, that hit Disney the next year. While that film is the weakest of the trilogy (seriously), it did allow Hudgens to break out a couple of slightly darker songs (yes, very slightly) and it featured Efron occasionally throwing dirt in anger. The last HSM feature was, quite wisely, a theatrical release, though it never approached anything resembling grit, darkness, or drama. (There is, however, a weird sexual undercurrent to Hudgens and Efron’s interactions that’s not entirely Disney-friendly, though it makes sense, considering the pair were in a relationship while filming the sudsy feature.)
Free of the bonds of High School Musical, Hudgens’ career has gleefully gone in the exact opposite direction. Even the more mainstream of Hudgens’ recent roles – another talented musician in Bandslam, the leading lady in the ghastly Beastly – have come with an edge (and, no, we don’t understand what was going on in Journey 2: The Mysterious Island either). But it’s Hudgens’ newest turns that have been the most eye-popping: one of the dizzy and dark dames in Sucker Punch, an almost-victim in The Frozen Ground, one-fourth of the year’s baddest girl gang in Spring Breakers, a supporting part in the schlockfest that is Machete Kills, and now as a pregnant and homeless teen in Gimme Shelter.
Hudgens is, in short, going for the grit – but is it working?
While the crime and grim of stuff like Spring Breakers is still wildly amusing and the “true life” aspect of The Frozen Ground is utterly lost to the spectacle of John Cusack and Nicolas Cage facing off, Hudgens might have found some actual drama in her latest film. Ron Krauss’ Gimme Shelter centers on Hudgens as Agnes “Apple” Bailey, a kicked-around teen who tries to bust out of the system when she discovers she is pregnant with her own child.
The first trailer for her Gimme Shelter (is it too late to change that title?) has arrived, and in between ham-handed lines about finding your real family, a jarring appearance by Brendan Fraser, and a lot of aimless walking, Hudgens looks to be trying her damndest to act the hell out of this thing. She’s very nearly unrecognizable in the role, and the fact that the Yahoo! Movies exclusive trailer premiere includes a peppy, zippy introduction by the actress (who is sure to mention that the part was “very challenging to play, but extremely rewarding”) only drives home the point that the character of Apple is not Hudgens. Not by a long shot, and that’s what Hudgens’ dark-skewing resume needs: a meaty role with something she can actually chew on.
Despite the dark pallor over her recent resume, Hudgens doesn’t seem to be going for full-grit; her two upcoming projects include horror comedy Kitchen Sink and an animated film about wild salmon (The Great Migration). We can’t blame her for wanting a little levity in her life, but if she wants to really earn that hard-hitting respect, she’s going to need more than just one standout dramatic role (even one that comes with a ripped-off Rolling Stones title) amongst a field of artificially deep features.
Gimme Shelter is in theaters on January 24th, and we look forward to seeing the final product.