For 10 years, David Schwimmer made you chuckle as earnest, feckless Ross on Friends. But in his second outing as a film director, Trust, he will infuriate you and make you cringe -- especially if you're attempting to parent a teenager. Unlikely as this shape-shift seems, Schwimmer in real life has been focusing for the last seven years on the very unfunny subject of sexual predators. Trust is based on the story of a father he met while involved with a Santa Monica rape treatment center, and it is really a horror story for the Internet Age. 14-year-old Annie is a bright and untroubled girl safe in the sanctum of a picture-perfect family (who wouldn't want Clive Owen for a dad and Catherine Keener for a mom?). And she does what comes naturally to any kid born after 1990: Live a second life online. Entirely through nightly chats, she falls for "Charlie" -- seemingly the out-of-state boyfriend any father could love, who turns out to be anything but.
After a very disturbing scene in which Annie meets Charlie in the flesh, which briefly turns Trust into a psychological thriller, the film angles off to her parents, and to her father's agony in particular. Owen, who often plays the stoic and cold-blooded anti-hero taking care of business, offers here a taut portrait of a man who cannot save his own daughter from the world's evil. Law enforcement agents seem competent but ultimately ineffectual. A therapist working with Annie, beautifully played by Viola Davis, patiently works at initiating the healing process. And an idyllic marriage comes to a painful brink.
Trust is a small film with big emotions. Keeping one's children safe is a project full of hot buttons and trap doors, and Schwimmer (himself about to become a father) has constructed a tense cautionary tale out of it that really has not been seen before -- if only because the virtual playground of the Web that swallows up the innocent is so new. Here is the dark side of Social Network, the warning label on a technology that still feels like science fiction even as its pervasiveness turns to banality. Think of Schwimmer as a Catcher in the Rye for the 21st Century.
Liana Liberato is very good as Annie, who too blithely takes on the rite of passage of all teens -- conjuring an identity for herself... but in a shadowy realm where identity is dangerously fluid and creeps evade the instinctive defenses of real human encounter. She is especially persuasive as a young girl who has been so conned into a delusion of romance as to view her despairing father and best friend as her enemies. Liberato was 14 herself when the film was shot. Her grasp of what such an ordeal might feel like is remarkable, and it's to Schwimmer's and her fellow actors' credit that she felt safe enough to explore it.
For more about the making of the film and their thoughts on Web-era parenting, watch the following interviews with Schwimmer, Owen and Liberato.
[Apologies to the late, great Spalding Gray for lifting the title of his classic monologue, Monster In A Box.]
Michael Kurcfeld is a Los Angeles-based documentary filmmaker and journalist (stonehengemedia.com).