David Schwimmer has had a pretty spotty record as a director — he’s mostly crapped out TV movies or a few episodes of the terrible American version of “Little Britain” and his only feature film was the remarkably forgettable Run, Fatboy, Run. He finally sought out material that was much closer to his heart, and the result is Trust, the crushing tale of a freshman girl who gets stalked and sexually violated by an online predator. It plays out like a painstakingly well-crafted Lifetime movie or an afterschool special, but that’s more to the layout of the plot rather than the acting and style of the production. Because it is painstakingly well-crafted and soul-crushing to watch. Schwimmer, working from a script by In The Bedroom scribe Robert Festinger, and Andy Bellin, creates what amounts to a stylistically interesting and heartrending cautionary example of the potential dangers of living in the digital age. While it’s plotted a bit like the online date rape version of the drivers’-ed “Blood on the Asphalt” video, the actors are all fantastic and Schwimmer manages to come at the story from enough intriguing and terrifying angles to make the film quality.
The great unwashed masses that typically gorge on jizzing Ben Stiller comedies and Reese Witherspoon rom-coms are going to be turned off when the film refuses to go Taken. As a board member of the Rape Foundation for the Rape Treatment Center of Santa Monica, Schwimmer makes the film more about the familial relationships, and while it’s less emotionally satisfying than watching Clive Owen ballpeen hammer a fucking rapist’s testicles to Quaker Oats and cherry pie filling, I commend him on making the bolder and fiercer choice. I’d be hard pressed to call Trust an enjoyable film, but it’s a certainly more challenging film than I expected from someone who used to couch dance over opening credits to The Rembrandts.
We open on a happy little suburban family in Chicago. Dad Will Cameron (Clive Owen) is an advertising executive, Mom Lynn (Catherine Keener) runs her own home business. Big brother is off to college, little sister is dressing up like a penguin for Halloween, and Annie Cameron (Liana Liberato) is stressing about making the high school volleyball team. Over this idyllic setup, we see a constant stream of textual graphics showing a chat between volleygirl13, Annie, and chRLeeCA, Charlie, a high school upperclassman Annie’s befriended online and began a relationship with. The conversations are mostly innocuous teen chat material — lots of textspeak and puppydog affirmations of love. It’s an extremely effective plot device, watching this almost constant communication between two characters, one of which who only exists as words on the screen, played out over this sort of happy upper middle class sitcom situation.
The parents know about Charlie, and Annie gives them his backstory: his mom’s sick, he’s going to go to UC Berkley next year, he’s got a brother and a sister. Dad gives Annie a brand new MacBook for her birthday, and while they monitor her online usage and phone time, she’s still in constant contact with Charlie. Schwimmer layers the entire film with wonderful little seemingly innocuous moments that resonate much louder later. When Will comes in and peeks over Annie’s shoulder to say goodnight as she’s chatting with Charlie, she types “PWOS,” chatspeak for Parents Watching Over Shoulder. Charlie goes “Me 2!” and starts to leave. Annie begs her dad to take off so Charlie won’t leave. And then they keep up their convos. Charlie doesn’t send any pictures of himself to her, though Annie sends him pics. When they do come, they look suspiciously — at least to me — like yearbook photos cliparted. Knowing the subject material going in, we’re already on the lookout for Charlie and the warning signs, but how casually they are floated is impressive on the part of the screenwriters and Schwimmer. And that’s when Charlie begins to admit to his lies. First he tells Annie that’s he’s actually in college, and that he’s twenty. Then when she isn’t bothered by that, he tells her he’s actually a grad student, and that he’s 25. Annie’s hurt by his lies, but by this time, she’s gotten so close to him, it doesn’t bother her that much.
The film bounces around between Will and Annie for the most part, giving us glimpses of the other characters mostly through their perspectives. As Will and Lynn drop the older brother off at college, Charlie talks Annie into meeting with him at a mall. He’s flown in from out of town solely to see her. She agrees, and that’s when Charlie (Chris Henry Coffey) shows up, carrying a little pink bag. Charlie’s clearly not 25, he’s closer to 35, if not 40. He’s boyishly attractive, but Annie is clearly thunderstruck. Charlie plies her with Jack Johnson/John Mayer lyric levels of affection — oh, you’re gorgeous, I wish I had eyes in the back of my head to tell you how beautiful you are when I walk away, your body is a wonderland, etc, etc, ad nausea. Charlie’s astonishingly slimy, worming his way into Annie’s affections. The progression is devastating and uncomfortable, and Schwimmer’s decision to use an age appropriate actress — Liberato was 14 when they filmed the movie — makes it all the more squirmy. It’s the most brilliantly conceived “rape” scene I’ve seen since Straw Dogs. I put rape in quotes not to raise the dander of the usual folks who smell it in the water and go fierce, but to address where Schwimmer is planning to go with the film. It’s not a sexual assault, though she says no; it’s played out like a prom night awkward teen fondling. I had to take a shower after watching the scene, and not a fucking cold one, buddy.
The rest of the film then is a steady, glacial falling apart of the family. At times, chunks explode and go crashing into the ocean, but we mostly watch them powerfully erode. Will is devastated that his daughter was violated under his watch, and he turns to horror and anger, joining a pervert tracking group and becoming obsessive with the details of the case. Compounded is that fact that he’s partners with a poonhound (Noah Emmerich) and he’s responsible for an American Apparel like ad campaign with young people dancing around in their underwear and posing like masturbation fodder freeze frames from Fiona Apple’s “Criminal” video. Annie is even more crushing to watch because at first, she just wants Charlie to still love her. She doesn’t see the big deal that she had her virginity snatched from her by an older man. She still loves Charlie and is hurt that her family is trying to keep them apart. It’s perhaps the most frightening aspect of the film, that the girl who was violated hates the people trying to protect her. Her best friend goes to the principal to get Annie help, at the cost of their friendship. Schwimmer refuses to take the easy route, taking the darker and more grueling path.
But where the film both shines and lags is when we watch as Will and Annie crash against everyone around them, including each other. The last hour of the film is mostly filled with expected shouting and crying. Liana Liberato does a phenomenal job as Annie - I can’t believe this is coming from a teen actress. Anyone can break, anyone can cry on camera, but watching this girl shred herself emotionally over the course of the picture is devastating. Catherine Keener is mostly there as a cipher for the other two, but she’s equally blistering as the mother trying to cope with what happened with her daughter, what’s still happening to her, and what’s happening to her husband as a result. I think what’s most interesting, and what would never happen in a Lifetime movie, is that there are times where she’s completely in the wrong. Her accusations to her husband, her responses to her daughter, they’re the wrong decision. And Clive Owen, cripes, when he melts near the end of the film, it’s like watching him literally become another actor - Javier Bardem or Jeffrey Dean Morgan. I admit, I expected and kind of feared that with the casting of Clive Owen, there’d be a fair amount of asskickery involved. I thought we’d end this film with a pervert quivering bloody in a storage shed somewhere in Jersey while he whacks him with a sock full of lugnuts. But what ends up happening is the regrettable Lifetime part of the film. While statistically and emotionally correct, it’s still kind of disappointing that after all the original decisions they’d been making, to trod familiar and cliched territory feels weak.
I respect Trust for broaching the topic, and the final coda of the film, done with a handheld camera, is particularly chilling. It’s bold to make a film about a teen statutory rape where the girl seems to be a willing participant, without turning it into some sort of running away together. It’s bold to make a film without a safe ending. It does a damn fine job of demonstrating the potential dangers of the internet culture. I don’t think it will, or should, start a slew of parents confiscating cell phones and blocking internet chats. Because the problem is that the target audience needs to be the children themselves. Most teenagers know the fact that they could get raped by a stranger, but they suffer that feeling of indestructible invincibility that puts morgue pages in yearbooks. So I’m not sure how effective it will be in the long run, but it’s still a pretty fierce film, despite it denigrating into Lifetime worthy pablum by the finale.