REVIEW: Smart, Sensitive Trust Explores the Awful Human Truths Behind Online Seduction

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Trust is the rare film that feels longer than its 106 minutes without having exceeded its narrative limits or strained the viewer's patience. Patience is one of the few things director David Schwimmer doesn't test, in fact, over the course of a story that seems to span a lifetime and a few scenes that stop time altogether. An indelibly rendered portrait of what lives behind a "News At 11" headline, Trust explores the various boundaries -- at home, online, and within the psyche -- sent into flux when a young girl reaches adolescence, and what can happen when the resulting vulnerabilities are exploited.

We meet Annie (Liana Liberato) as a 14-year-old girl just starting high school. An athlete stressed out about volleyball tryouts, she moves through her morning routine as a series of pastel-covered chat room messages bloop up at the bottom of the screen. Strangers with phonetic massacres for handles cheer her on, wish her luck, offer their services in helping her stretch -- oops, block that last one.

Filmmakers are still grappling with how to represent the dynamics of interactive communication, beyond two people sitting in front of screens, awkwardly calling out their words as they type (which happens here too, but not often). The insular, pleasurably private nature of online interaction is a tough aesthetic to crack; it's even tougher to represent its distractive qualities and emotional reverberations. Though it's a little unwieldy at first, I came to appreciate Schwimmer's idiosyncratic approach, which attempts to manifest the subterranean flow of information and interruption constantly bubbling up in our pockets and our palms.

In effect it's an attempt to remove the boundaries of that flow, which after all reaches far beyond the screens from which it emanates. Annie is chat buddies with a boy named Charlie. He claims to be a high school student in California, and the two bond over their love of volleyball. Will (Clive Owen) and Lynn (Catherine Keener) are attentive parents caught up in work and their eldest's (Spencer Curnutt) departure for college. Though their early scenes sometimes veer into hokey, cautionary sentiment, the duo help embed the film in a suburban realism that grows more compelling as it is shaken to its foundation.

One of the most chilling things about Trust is how well it lays out the grooming strategies used by expert predators. Charlie times his confessions perfectly: With Annie glowing about having made the team, he says he can now tell her that he's 20, and not 16, as he said. He didn't want to her to think he was condescending to her as a college athlete, he says. "Do you hate me now? ☹"

You might think you know all about it, savvy web surfer, Chris Hansen connoisseur, but scriptwriter Andy Bellin bypasses sensation and scare-tactics for the more awful, human truths of this kind of seduction. The focus on Annie during these exchanges enhances our sense of the insidious forces at work on her. With each of Charlie's admissions -- actually he's 25; actually he may be close to 40, as she eventually sees for herself -- Schwimmer lingers on Annie's responses as they develop, a movement from doubt and repulsion to needful acquiescence and ultimately fearful vacancy. Beyond triggering the impulse to control what we cannot, Liberato's finely calibrated performance presents a heartbreakingly plausible example of a self-possessed young woman moving toward harm. The scenes that follow Annie to the mall, where she agrees to meet Charlie, and then to the motel room where his endgame plays out, are terrifying to watch. But Schwimmer avoids compounding Annie's exploitation by eliciting in us a protective response, one whose perils he goes on to critique -- largely through Will's erratic, controlling behavior -- in heart-rending detail.

Back at school, Annie frames the incident to her best the friend as a consensual encounter, but the friend senses trouble, and tells a school counselor. When we meet her Annie is trying to break into a highly sexualized social circle, and Will is an ad executive for an obvious American Apparel stand-in -- the original being a company notorious for its campaigns featuring provocatively young-looking models. Such details feel like forced context, but ultimately they blend convincingly into the edges of the film's interpersonal focus. Liberato's extraordinary performance is the primary binding agent, along with those given by Clive Owen as a father obsessed with the terms of his daughter's violation, and Viola Davis as the therapist in whom Annie is encouraged to confide.

Annie's resistance to the idea of her victimization elevates the story beyond its Law and Order: SVU trappings. Being certain about what really happened means the viewer is, at some point, resistant to the behavior of almost every character involved. Annie, deep under the spell of her abuser and in denial, violently repels attempts to address what took place.

In some cases, she's not wrong: Her father is out of control, alternately accusing and filled with anguish; her privacy is consistently violated, her being and behavior treated as something that might be possessed and controlled, rather than protected and engaged. The psychology of trauma and the trauma of familial psychology are densely interlaced and vividly portrayed in Trust. It's a feat of unexpected difficulty from David Schwimmer, and it earns the elusive commodity invoked by the title.