Wednesday, November 30, 2011
No easy resolutions, but one spectacular performance
By Edward Copeland
It's always difficult to comprehend the sick and twisted minds that would sexually abuse, molest or rape children, whether a disgusting Penn State or Catholic Church scandal is in the news or not. In the movie Trust, which came out earlier this year, it attempts to tackle the particularly sleazy world of Internet predators, but does so in a way that challenges a black-and-white approach to the subject — an attempt that sometimes comes perilously close to crossing lines — not so much into inappropriateness but retreats to formula. Fortunately, it avoids most of those traps, thanks mainly to the magnificent work of the teen actress Liana Liberato whose character the movie revolves around.
Trust marks the second feature film directed by actor David Schwimmer (though I haven't seen his first effort, the Simon Pegg comedy Run, Fatboy, Run) and Schwimmer performs adequately at preventing the screenplay by Andy Bellin and Robert Festinger from veering too far into melodrama and ratcheting up plot points from countless other movies by keeping most of the film's focus on its provocative and complicated nature.
The film stars two of my most welcome screen presences in recent years, Clive Owen and Catherine Keener, as Will and Lynn Cameron, suburban Chicago parents of three — two daughters, 14-year-old Annie (Liberato) and little sister Katie (Aislinn DeButch), and oldest brother Peter (Spencer Curnutt), who has left for his first year at college.
There's hardly a dysfunction to be found in the family as British transplant Will earns kudos for his work in the advertising and marketing field and Lynn serves dutifully as a loving earth mother to the clan. Their lives seem to be ideal except for the part of Annie's life that her parents don't know about, a life taking place in another world that exists within the walls of the Camerons' own home.
Annie has a boyfriend, albeit a virtual one at first, named Charlie that she has met online and grown very attached to through their computer chats. Those chats eventually lead to actual phone conversations. It bothers Annie slightly that Charlie's story keeps changing. When they first talk online, he's 16, though he ups it to 20 soon after. Later, he admits he's actually 25. Annie quizzes him about the lies, but every fabrication that Charlie explains, the teen she chooses to buy the reason he gives for having lied. Why? It's not that Annie is a particularly dumb 14-year-old girl, but she's vulnerable, enjoying the attention she gets from the virtual Charlie that the real boys at school don't give her.
Inevitably, Charlie talks her into a face-to-face meeting, claiming that it might be their only chance since he's told her that he lives on the West Coast and might not be in Chicago again soon. Of course, 25 was a lie as well and Annie feels betrayed, but Charlie (Chris Henry Coffey) charms her enough despite being at least in his mid-30s (if not older) to get her to stay and before Annie knows it, Charlie has taken her to a motel and what he views as seduction, anyone else would call forcible rape. The surprise comes that since Annie denies so much of the truth about Charlie, she claims it was consensual as well even though she fought him as it happened. Her personality changes and she all but brags about experience, which is part of what makes Trust more challenging than you'd expect.
Despite Annie's outward attitude, her best friend Brittany (Zoe Levin) realizes that something bad occurred and she tells school officials, who report it to the police. The film really takes its unusual turn at this point. Her parents, understandably, can't believe this happened without their knowledge. The FBI, in the form of Agent Doug Tate (Jason Clarke), gets in on the case since the assumption is that Charlie, whomever he might be, probably crossed state lines. It's Annie's reaction that proves to be shocking. She feels utterly betrayed — not by Charlie but by Brittany for reporting the incident and getting Charlie in trouble because she's "in love" with him. Then her anger turns on her parents who become overprotective (a bit too late), so she resents them for preventing her from being able to contact him and when she agrees to try with the FBI setting up a trap to try to locate, the cover gets blown and he never calls again. The interference of her ex-friend, her parents and the police have cost her the only person she feels found her special and beautiful.
Liberato, who was 14 when she made the film, gives a phenomenal performance that overpowers everyone else in the film, no minor achievement when the cast not only includes Clive Owen and Catherine Keener but also Viola Davis in the small role as a psychiatrist that Annie is forced to see. The film in no way argues that Charlie and Annie should be allowed to pursue their "love" and eventually Annie gets wise and her breakdown when realizing it is both heartbreaking and harrowing to watch. Liberato truly amazes, giving one of the best performances by an actress that age that I've seen in quite some time.
On the downside of Trust, while it makes Annie so complex and interesting, the screenplay doesn't flesh out her parents or any other characters in the same way, especially poor Keener whose gets a terribly underwritten role. Owen comes off better, especially when he gets some quiet moments toward the end of the film. Unfortunately before he gets there, he's stuck with not one but two clichéd reactions: First, he almost turns into a potential vigilante in the mold of a an infinite number of parents (or siblings or friends, etc.) in an infinite number of films (abetted by yet another portrayal of an inept FBI agent who lets Will steal his computer and files on potential pedophile suspects) that threatens to turn Owen into Liam Neeson in that godawful movie Taken. Second, he gets the ideal career so that he can reassess how he makes his living when he sees how his firm's latest ad campaign peddles young teen girls as sex objects. (The script even gives him a lecherous jerk of a co-worker played by Noah Emmerich to represent the evils of the ad industry.)
Those reservations aside, Trust contains enough thought-provoking material and its avoidance of easy and pat resolutions make up for the parts that border on silly and melodramatic. The credit for smoothing those bumps fall almost entirely on Liberato's young shoulders. I look forward to seeing where this young actress's career goes in the future.