If “Hard Candy” is the peak of the online sexual predator thriller subgenre, “Trust” is its dramatic equivalent. It imagines how sexual assault might affect a minor (and her family) in the real world, with a real teenage girl who isn’t a vigilante. By doing so, director David Schwimmer has not only delivered one of the best films of the year, but also one of the most challenging. It’s honest almost to a fault.
Annie (Liana Liberato) is a bright girl who feels ostracized from the exclusive cliques of cool kids in school. Like many teens (and now adults), an unhealthy portion of her social life is conducted online. She could be waiting to get picked up from school, and instead of interacting with her peers, she fills moments of loneliness by chatting with virtual strangers on her iPhone. She meets a boy named Charlie who shares her interest in volleyball, and she fills the voids in her day by talking with him during every idle moment, even at the dinner table. Despite hints of dishonesty from his end, their bond grows stronger, and when they eventually meet he is not who he says he is. He is a middle-aged sexual predator who has been grooming her for abuse. She succumbs to his trap, but the fallout is almost worse than the act itself. It’s almost a cliché at this point that people are dishonest online in films, but sadly, I believe it also happens frequently in real life.
The film is honest, daring, and challenging in the manner it approaches its subject matter. It will make some viewers extremely uncomfortable, and some would say it almost makes light of the situation to the point where it almost sympathizes with the predator, but I believe it empathizes with the victim. Annie is obviously emotionally and psychologically damaged from the experience, but she deals with it by wondering what the big deal is, and she insists that he loves and understands her, even though he is twice her age and disappears after the encounter. After the F.B.I. and her parents find out about the incident, she blames it on them. She still wants to see him again, and she believes he wants to see her but can’t because of the law.
Her parents are played by veteran actors Clive Owen and Catherine Keener, and they are affected by their daughter’s rape almost more so than her. Keener is devastated and wants to support her daughter in any way possible. Owen is devastated and wants to find the predator and kill him. Jason Clarke (“The Chicago Code”) plays the F.B.I. agent trying to crack the case. Much of the latter half of the film is dedicated to Owen’s response to his daughter’s rape and how it affects his personal and professional life, without losing focus of Annie’s plight. Owen is particularly suited for the role, because he can play an everyman afflicted with fits of rage as well as anybody. Keener naturally emanates authenticity, as usual. Liberato more than holds her ground as Annie. All around, the acting is incredible. The film verges on melodrama at points, but it’s a melodramatic situation, and the actors deliver without going over the top, as does the film in general.
Besides the performances and handling of subject matter, the film’s other greatest strength is how well it understands the Internet. Text conversations play out on screen while Annie is doing other things, such as eating dinner, complete with shorthand Internet speak. Schwimmer took great care in presenting how people communicate online, and as result, the film comes off as an accurate snapshot of this generation. Like “Catfish,” it has more to say about the Internet than “The Social Network,” but unlike many films that understand the Internet, it isn’t about the Internet. It acts as if every film should understand, and it doesn’t show off. It’s just a part of the story, which is about characters, not technology.
Owen’s career also plays an interesting role in the film, as he works for an advertising agency whose biggest client sexualizes teenagers similarly to Abercrombie and Fitch, and it takes a clever toll on his character. How can he continue to sell clothes using teenagers and sex when he can’t stop thinking about his daughter being raped?
“Trust” isn’t for everybody. It doesn’t explode into violence but instead ends on a heartbreaking monologue. It deals with uncomfortable subject matter, and instead of simplifying, it challenges the audience, and it casually, expertly features social commentary on a new social medium. The performances and subject matter will keep you engaged throughout. Stick around for the beginning of the credits to find out where the film (and its antagonist) really stands.
5 out of 5 stars