Radical physical transformations have regularly led to a trophy case full of shiny metal men, just ask this award season’s quick change artists, Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto for Dallas Buyers Club.

Abandoning their trademark good looks and shedding 77 pounds between them for their controversial roles as an unlikely duo lobbying for a common medical cause, they’re both considered shoo-ins for Hollywood’s biggest acting prize in a few weeks, an Oscar.

And while Vanessa Hudgens (High School Musical franchise, and more recently, Spring Breakers) probably won't be mentioned in the same breath as McConaughey and Leto, she too benefits from being barely recognizable in her latest film, Gimme Shelter.

Playing a street-wise teenager with a drug-addicted mother who moonlights as a prostitute and a wealthy father who isn’t exactly interested in investing in his troubled daughter’s life, Hudgens’ character Apple is faced with an unplanned pregnancy and no place to call home. But as grim as her situation looks, she refuses to give up, a quality that serves her well in her struggle to survive.

Eventually winding up at the Several Sources Shelter, the real-life passion project of founder Kathy DiFiore, who was once homeless herself, Apple not only discovers the family she never had but finds the support and resources she needs for a better future for her—and her baby.

More Than Method Acting

More than simply swapping her usual look for a decidedly less glamorous one (for the record, Hudgens’ locks have been chopped into a overgrown mullet with equally heavy bangs, she’s pierced, tattooed and gained quite a bit of weight), however, what makes Hudgens’ performance truly transformative is what happened on the inside.

“When Vanessa was cast for Gimme Shelter, she ended up living there [at the shelter] for three weeks,” the film’s director, Ronald Krauss, says. “Vanessa was incredible because it wasn’t just the hair, the weight gain, she became one of these girls. She really transformed.”

Following the same immersive approach, Krauss also lived at the shelter for a year while he wrote the screenplay.

“It was an incredible journey,” Krauss remembers. “I was so incredibly moved by these women’s stories. These women are like flowers who’ve been deprived of nutrients and water their whole lives. But then you have someone like Kathy who pours water on them with opportunity and education, and they blossom. They begin to see all these opportunities. No one ever gave them a chance in life, and it’s incredible to see them transform and become young mothers and adults and blossom in their jobs.”

Highlighting the Plight of the Homeless

For Krauss, helping the homeless has always been an integral part of his life. But when he discovered a Several Sources Shelter only a stone’s throw away from his brother’s home in New Jersey, he knew he stumbled upon something special.

He never intended to make a film about the homeless but basically “had no choice” once he met DiFiore, who’d been basically serving as a mother to the motherless for the past 33 years. Perhaps, even more surprising, she was a tireless advocate of change who rejected publicity for her efforts.

Telling DiFiore’s story was an uphill battle for Krauss, but it was worth every ounce of effort, he says. Not only was it an opportunity to document her legacy for future generations to carry on her work, but it allowed him to tell a meaningful story of trials turning to triumph.

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“People get frustrated with so many little things these days, and these girls have been through everything,” Krauss says. “But they showed me that no matter how bad you think your life is, how much you think you’re not heading in the right direction, there is hope. No matter who you are, if you never give up on your dreams, on hope, you can survive and make it in life. These girls are living proof.”

Opening nationwide on January 24, Gimme Shelter, starring Vanessa Hudgens, Rosario Dawson, Brendan Fraser and James Earl Jones, is rated PG-13 for mature thematic material involving mistreatment, some drug content, violence and language—all concerning teens. For more information on the film, please visit www.gimmeshelterthemovie.com.

Publication date: January 22, 2014