The new movie Trust is not easy to watch, particularly if, like me, you have a hyper-texting teenage daughter who is navigating the shark-infested waters of her freshman year at high school. I mostly watched it through my fingers at a recent preview attended by the director, David Schwimmer, he of Friends fame. The discomfort was magnified by the audience reactions to the missteps of fourteen-year-old, Annie, played magnificently by Liana Liberato and the overreactions of her dad, portrayed by an enraged and obsessive Clive Owen. The woman sitting next to me audibly begging Annie not to go with her new "friend," who turns out to be in his mid-thirties and not the much younger age he first pretends to be.
My biggest fear walking into the AFI cinema in Silver Spring just outside DC, was that this would be a big screen version of "To Catch a Predator" -- possibly the worst television program ever made. Chris Hansen and his team created a seven-year long sting operation luring men into a fully wired house thinking they were going to have sex with an underage girl they had been chatting with online. The "girl" is in fact an undercover cop and once the guy is in the room, the TV crew (and waiting police) take over. The controversy that ensued from this misguided piece of "entertainment" was rightly deserved.
Instead, Trust is far more nuanced and is based in actual (though rare) events. Schwimmer is a volunteer board member of the Rape Treatment Center in Santa Monica and he has used real cases, interviewed teenage victims and, critically, spent a lot of time with the fathers of teenage girls who have been victimized. He also worked with federal prosecutors to understand the challenges they have in bringing these crimes to court. The result is a credible, if statistically uncommon account, of a sexual predator using the internet to lie to and lure his victim to meet with him.
Annie is the middle child of a relatively happy family of five. Her workaholic dad is an advertising executive who has spearheaded a campaign to launch a provocative clothing line to the tween market. Mom, played by a passionate and believable Catherine Keener, loves her husband and kids as she goes about her busy suburban life.
The film opens with Annie celebrating her 14th birthday and Dad handing over the much anticipated big gift - a shiny new MacBook -- which later becomes the device for her subsequent chat room liaison with "Charlie." She is struggling to make her way at school with the popular girls, to make the volley ball team and to emerge out of the shadow of her "hot" older brother who is about to leave for college.
Reassuring and soothing messages and texts start to appear on the movie screen with a jarring juxtaposition almost as soon as she fires up her laptop and as she gets her breakfast and readies herself to get to school. With her social life going south and her parents, particularly her father, appearing not to be present for her, she throws herself into the electronic arms of her new beau, whose admitted age has gone from 16 to 20 to 25 as their interchanges continue.
While her parents take her brother to college, "Charlie" seizes his chance and asks her to meet at the mall. Shocked by his appearance and obvious age, Annie nevertheless is persuaded to get into his car, drive to a local motel and then model a skimpy two-piece that he has bought for her -- an outfit that her father spends long hours promoting.
As she later tells her therapist (an outstanding performance by Viola Davis), Annie's shocked response to the rape is to leave her body -- as if the violence he commits is upon another girl. Her subdued return to school is shattered by a friend's report to a counselor that Annie was seen leaving a mall with a middle-aged man. The police are called and the awful and intrusive procedure to procure DNA and other physical evidence is shown in a clinically cold light. Annie's body has become the scene of the crime, though it is the scars in her heart and mind that the second half of the movie lays bare.
But it is the response of her father that exacerbates an already desperate situation. Riven with guilt, shame, remorse and self-pity, he becomes a one-man vigilante, stalking near-by sex offenders, chasing down creeps he finds online and posing as a girl himself to see if he can flush out his daughter's predator. It's complicated by the fact that Annie believes Charlie loves her and is her soul mate. It takes DNA and a resourceful FBI agent to convince her that he's raped three other girls and her illusions come crashing down.
The denouement is both hopeful and disturbing. In his remarks at the end of the screening, Schwimmer explained his reasons for leaving in a short home movie clip featuring the perpetrator and his own "happy" family. The last look to camera left me with chills.
This is definitely not a date movie. Nor, with its R-rating for "disturbing material involving the rape of a teen, language, sexual content and some violence", is it one for the kids. Though a thoughtful parent may well want to watch this with an older teen as there are many teachable moments -- for both kids and adults -- within its 104 minutes.
It sympathetically poses the question about how far we can protect our loved ones, while emphasizing the need to be there for each other when we fall. It doesn't demonize the technology -- at times it looks like a loving infomercial for Apple -- though it does show the potential downsides of unfettered access to the net. It uses dark lighting and a subtle music score along with some agonizingly long silences to evoke a sense of dread and foreboding.
My hope is that this movie kicks off a measured and reasonable debate about how best to harness the ever-expanding promise of our always-on digital lives, particularly for our kids. My fear is that it could be used by those whose political or commercial interests would want to exploit the anxieties of parents to promote their products or pass censorious legislation. Let's remain vigilant.