Heartbreaking Trust: A 14-Year-Old Star Is Born

Director David Schwimmer's grim story of Internet-based pedophilia is hard to watch but impossible to ignore

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Chuck Hodes / Millenium Entertainment / Everett Collection

Clive Owen and Catherine Keener star in Trust

Much like this week’s splashy action picture Source Code, Trust features a story line about people at the mercy of technology. But there’s no science-fiction component to director David Schwimmer’s grim story of Internet-based pedophilia, and there’s no aspect of it that doesn’t feel painfully plausible. We’re in the here and now, watching pretty 14-year-old Annie (Liana Liberato) sink deeper and deeper into electronic quicksand.

She has a new online boyfriend, Charlie, and while she takes breaks for meals, classes and volleyball practice, she’s always gazing into her new laptop or clutching her iPhone, awaiting a text or a call from him. Her personal technology beats like a second heart. Annie’s parents are hip and fun: her dad Will (Clive Owen) is an advertising executive, while her mother Lynn (Catherine Keener) sells real estate. Her brother Tyler (Noah Crawford) is college bound, but the memory of his coolness still lingers in the minds of other girls at Annie’s high school, giving her a social leg up. There’s a little sister too. It’s a stable, content household. She’s not lacking.

But Charlie really “gets” her and keeps telling her how great it is that she “gets” him. Initially, she keeps nothing about him secret, burbling happily about him at the dinner table. That’s because when they first start chatting online, he’s 16 and a volleyball player too, but as she gets deeper into his seduction, the age he admits to starts inching upward. When they finally meet, Charlie (Chris Henry Coffey) is revealed to be a man of about 40, preppy and blandly handsome, with a handful of smarmy excuses for his deceptions.

Annie’s no dummy. She’s picked a public place (a shopping mall) for their introduction, giving herself an exit strategy. You can see her calculating how wrong this is. And then you see her trying to reconcile the grossness of Charlie’s age and person — those good looks are fading; those chinos could not be construed as hot in any dimension occupied by teenagers — with those exciting and ego-boosting sweet nothings he’s been whispering through the computer screen. She, like many girls before her, puts her faith in the allure of words. They adjourn to his hotel room.

Trust feels, in these scenes, like an innocence snuff film, and it is excruciating to watch. I suppose they’re discreet, as these things go, but the image of a 14-year-old Liberato in a matching red lace bra and underwear, delicate, awkward and terribly, unjustifiably insecure about her beauty, is so unsettling that had I not been obliged to stay, I could easily have seen myself storming out of the theater at that point, spitting about prurience and such. That would have been a shame, since the film gains power in its gritty depiction of the aftermath of Annie’s rape.

Despite the efforts of a kindly therapist (Viola Davis), Annie clings to the notion that Charlie is her boyfriend and they just had sex. No big deal. The news reaches her peers, who offer no sympathy; indeed, it is a wonder that Annie is ever brave enough to set foot in her high school again. At home, Lynn struggles ineffectually, but at least kindly, to contain the ruin of her child’s life. Meanwhile, Annie’s father uses the information available online courtesy of Megan’s Law to stalk nearby convicted abusers (despite no evidence that they are Charlie). Will is a menace, not just to the community but to his own child. Mismanaging his urge to blame, he takes his daughter’s eagerness to leave innocence behind as an affront.

Will also looks at the images of young girls he uses in his advertising campaigns with the sickening realization that his profession contributes to the adolescent urge to be desirable and desired. There is a connect-the-dots quality to this screenwriter’s tangent (both Andy Bellin and Robert Festinger, who co-wrote In the Bedroom, are credited), which isn’t helped by the fact that Schwimmer is a decidedly unsubtle director. A coda showing “Charlie” in his real life is unnecessarily inflammatory and should have been cut.

But there is no denying that Schwimmer knows something about getting a performance out of an actor. Liberato, who is 15 now, is flat-out terrific. Shifting fluidly from demure to sullen and damaged, she is tremendously compelling. Keener doesn’t have enough to do, but what she does is dead on. As for Owen: when an observer feels the urge to lecture the infuriatingly wrong-headed Will from her seat yet simultaneously understands his motivation, it becomes obvious that the actor has capably done his job. Trust will be a tough sell — how many of us are masochistic enough to spend Friday night being walked agonizingly through the process of a child’s sexual and mental abuse? — but its unflinching gaze has a hard, sad worth.