Movies in the ‘90s did a pretty poor job of portraying the Internet. Audiences were expected to believe that characters used highly whimsical operating systems invented by art directors, or typed furious lines of fake code into a command line, or entered wholly absurd virtual worlds. (Hackers is a quintessential, if self-consciously exaggerated, example.) We are past those naïve, AOL-branded You’ve Got Mail days, but if Trust is any indication, visual evocations of the Internet haven’t gotten much more interesting. In the opening scene of the film, the main character, Annie (played by newcomer Liana Liberato), makes herself a smoothie before working out, while text from her online chat-room conversation pops up on screen in garish colors (subtitles for the iChat generation). She asks for advice on her high school volleyball tryouts, a boy helps her out, she makes the team, they start trading enthusiastic personal messages, then…he asks for her picture. And if movies about the Internet have taught us anything, that cannot be good.
Trust is directed by David Schwimmer (yes, that David Schwimmer), who’s on the board of directors for the Rape Foundation in Santa Monica, California. The movie plays less as a drama than a dramatization, an A-B-C guide to what happens when you give a 14-year-old daughter with sexual insecurities a MacBook Pro. After Annie finds out that her online friend, Charlie (Chris Henry Coffey), is older than he originally said, she becomes nervous but not uninterested. They decide to meet at a mall and, hey, he’s not so bad-looking as far as rapists go, but he’s definitely a lot older than he originally said—probably pushing 40—and he’s pretty creepy to boot, calming Annie down with paternal remarks like, “You’re not upset with me, are you?” and “I’m still the same old Charlie!”
If Schwimmer had set out to make a film that stretched out this awkward meet-cute between a pedophile and the (willing) object of his affections, one that convinced us of his charm, of her ability to be swayed enough to convince herself that they are in love, as she apparently does, he could’ve had something very bold on his hands, or at least different. But as it is, he treats this moment as a mere pit stop on the way to the, er, main attraction. Annie and Charlie share ice cream and trade stilted lines that leave no impression that she has developed a serious rapport with this man, online or off, much less that she would jump into bed with him. But jump into bed she does, or amble skittishly, in red lingerie that accents her slight frame (“You don’t think my body is weird?”), in a hotel room that looks as though it were decorated by someone specifically looking to attract rapists, right down to the sickly blue floral wallpaper, which becomes a visual motif whenever the film wants to quickly reference the scene of the crime.
If Schwimmer’s treatment of this material feels obvious, clunky, and utilitarian, it’s for a reason. He has bigger things on his mind, like the connections between child molestation and the ease of social exchange and hyper-sexuality of the Internet. His bid for contemporary relevancy is such that characters actually say things to each other like, “Check my tweets.” Unsurprisingly, Annie’s dad, Will (Clive Owen), works for an advertising agency doing campaigns for an American Apparel-like clothing company, for which Annie herself poses in a sexually provocative position. When Annie’s classmates finally get wind of what really happened, they post pictures of her online calling her a “whore.” Oh, the youth!
To be fair, Schwimmer probably knows a lot about the issues at work, and he even seems well-intentioned. But it’s hard not to watch the dissolution that follows the rape without feeling like the director is enacting his own kind of revenge on the culture around him. Characters are less characters than placards in a revved-up PSA about the Gen-Y horrors of teen rape. Owen, brutish and nostril-flaring, daydreams about blowing the rapist’s brains out with a rifle and accuses his daughter of lying to him. Catherine Keener, playing to type, is the concerned but neurotic mother who uncorks the white wine at signs of trouble—which, by the way, she does fabulously, though there’s still no explanation for why she ever got involved in this project, except as a favor to Schwimmer. Least character of all, of course, is the rapist, Charlie, who is less a human than a force of nature, swept into Annie and her family’s happy suburban Chicago existence in order to, as the press notes eloquently put it, “forever change their lives,” and then scuttle away. Consider for a moment the enormity and presumption of that notion—that to be raped, to put it bluntly, is to be permanently fucked—and you’re onto the film’s chillingly sanctifying activist mission statement.
It’s hard to talk about political films without talking about politics. I couldn’t help but wince at certain scenes of Trust that were shot at Northwestern University, my alma mater, where I learned a somewhat more nuanced understanding of child molestation: that pedophiles are diagnosable fetishists who sometimes do terrible things to people whose problems are made worse by a society that insists on stigmatizing them. As it happens, I don’t think that all pedophiles, including the ones who don’t act on their urges, should be hunted and killed outside their homes, as Bill Conradt was in a horribly-gone-wrong episode of To Catch a Predator. Maybe you do. Schwimmer certainly seems like he does, based on the—spoiler alert!—absurd formalist sleight of hand that allows us to watch a home video of the rapist during the end credits, with his wife and young son, smiling at the camera as maniacal villains are wont to do in movies like these. Does it even need to be said that he’s also a schoolteacher? Trust isn’t quite To Catch a Predator: The Feature Film, but it’s close.