Don’t look now, but David Schwimmer, erstwhile Friends nebbish, is quietly maturing into a talented director. It was hard to judge his mettle based on his first effort, 2007’s Run Fatboy Run, an oddball romantic comedy. But with Trust, a dark, thoughtful and deeply unsettling drama that follows a shattered family in the aftermath of a predatory crime, Mr. Schwimmer has no jokes to hide behind. And despite extremely unpleasant material, he coaxes subtle, incredible performances from his cast and builds a tense, arresting narrative.
Annie Cameron (the wonderfully naturalistic Liana Liberato) is a normal 14-year-old girl: a lanky, dedicated athlete with a face still rounded by baby fat, she gleefully dons a homemade crown for a family dinner in celebration of her birthday, only to rush upstairs afterward to chat online with a network of Internet friends on her brand-new MacBook laptop. One such friend, “Charlie,” is a fellow volleyball player from California. He sends her messages of encouragement tinged with teenage flirtation, and Annie breathes in the compliments like pure oxygen. She finally gets up the nerve to send him a photo, but when she asks for one in return, Charlie hedges. “I have a confession,” he types. “I’m 20. R U mad??” Annie decides to let it slide. Soon after he reveals that he’s really 25, and in grad school. While her parents Will (Clive Owen) and Lynn (Catherine Keener) are away for the weekend, taking her older brother to college, Charlie suggests that he fly to Chicago to meet Annie. But when he approaches her at a local shopping mall, she’s taken aback: He is at least 35 years old.
Ms. Liberato, whose sole big-screen credit prior to Trust is a four-year-old film called The Last Sin Eater, is so skilled at conveying authentic adolescent naïveté and self-doubt that it’s entirely believable when Annie agrees to talk to Charlie instead of whipping out a can of pepper spray. It’s shocking and disgusting but maddeningly real when she gets into his car and accompanies him to a hotel, allowing herself to pretend that her rape is her choice. And it’s heartbreaking when, even after her best friend has alerted the police and the F.B.I. has confiscated her hard drive in an attempt to catch her attacker, Annie swears that she and Charlie are in love, and that what happened between them was special.
Trust is not an easy film to watch. It pulls no punches, leaving us to shift uncomfortably as we see Annie emerge from the hotel bathroom in red lingerie, awkward and self-conscious but desperately wanting to feel sexy, while Charlie watches from the bed. It dwells on Will’s self-destructive obsession with exacting vigilante justice–which leads him to stalk a local sex offender and pummel an innocent man in Annie’s school gymnasium–and doesn’t shy from his anger at his daughter, which is as much about her sexuality as it is her secretiveness. It allows the Cameron family to remain broken, without offering a conscience-clearing lesson or neat, satisfying ending. If this were a Hollywood blockbuster, Charlie would end up impaled on something sharp, or at the very least surrounded by cop cars and helicopters, maybe wounded with a non-fatal bullet to the leg for good measure.
And honestly, that’s why I’m withholding half a circle from my rating. Because I needed that violent impaling for closure. Because without it, Trust is almost too real, too devastating, to bear.
Running time 106 minutes
Written by Andy Bellin and Robert Festinger
Directed by David Schwimmer
Starring Clive Owen, Catherine Keener, Liana Liberato