If a child actor becomes a star, they usually go one of two ways: either they become super-successful or utter trainwrecks. We’re more familiar with the latter than the former. Hollywood is a brutal machine to everyone, and throwing in a child almost seems cruel since growing up is hard enough without your self-esteem being tied to fame and fortune. Clark Gregg‘s Trust Me dips into this cruel, unforgiving world of child acting, and while he has no problem displaying its soul-twisting innards, his greatest sympathy seems to be more for an exploiter than the exploited.
Howard (Gregg) is a former child actor now working as an agent for child actors. He’s not particularly good at his job as he’s far too reliant on the hard sell, doesn’t communicate effectively with his clients, and is constantly being bested by his rival agent, Aldo (Sam Rockwell). Moments after losing his top client, Howard happens to meet Lydia (Saxon Sharbino), a talented 14-year-old actress who has a chance at winning a star-making role in a blockbuster franchise. Although he feels protective of Lydia, Howard must eventually decide if his paternal instincts are for the well-being of an innocent girl or the preservation of his golden ticket.
From its opening scenes, the film quickly launches into the ugliness of Howard’s business with no reservations. His hucksterism is borderline schizophrenic as he’ll swing from fawning admiration to angry dismissal and back again in the less than thirty seconds. He’s pathetic in more ways than one, and he’s just one aspect of an industry that’s willing to treat kids like they’re the most special people in the world until they’re thrown in the trash. Gregg’s well-aware of the moral complexity at the heart of his story, and for most of the movie, he’s able to hold our attention as we wonder how long Howard can walk this moral tightrope.
Gregg’s quiet affability is the picture’s greatest strength. Gregg has a unique charisma that’s commanding without ever being loud. This is one of his best performances as he’s able to keep us on his side even as his character says and does despicable things like tearing down a child star by telling her agent that she has “ugly looking breast buds.” Howard can barely get away with this since he was subjected to the same kind of dehumanizing evaluation when he was a kid, but it’s still disturbing to have a grown man criticizing how a teenager is hitting puberty.
As bad as Howard can be, when it comes to scarring children, most of the blame is targeted at bad parents. Lydia’s father/manager Ray (Paul Sparks) is a mean drunk, and he makes Howard look better by comparison. Howard may be jeopardizing Lydia’s career by playing hardball with the studio, but at least he’s not going to drunkenly drive her home. The arc of the film is Lydia bringing out the best in Howard until his newly emerged moral compass is challenged.
The story takes a bold turn that threatens to undo the entire picture, and sadly, it does. To this point, Trust Me had managed to handle the queasy world of child actors through the bond between Howard and Lydia (Sharbino also gives a great performance). It’s a necessary turn, but Gregg can’t quite figure out how to play it, and ultimately his feelings for Howard trump everything else. He’s looking for a redemption story, and it comes at the expense of his other characters.
Additionally, his conclusion is still wishy-washy at best as he doesn’t want to condemn the supporting characters, but still needs them to serve his callow agent. It’s an ending that smacks of short cuts, and the disappointment is further compounded by laughably bad and intrusive fantastical imagery that also pops up periodically throughout the movie. I have no idea why Howard is occasionally greeted by a CGI butterfly, but it flits along the screen and then disappears with no explanation, although I can’t imagine any explanation would be satisfactory. Something so fanciful doesn’t click with a movie that should pride itself in its unflinching treatment of child actors.
Gregg’s most popular role continues to be Marvel’s Agent Coulson, but it’s great watching him expand to a more despicable role that has elements of dark comedy. Although other talented actors like Rockwell, Allison Janney, Felicity Huffman, and William H. Macy drop on by (Macy’s in the movie for less than two minutes), Trust Me belongs to Gregg and Sharbino, and they carry the movie well. It’s just a shame Gregg ultimately loses sight of the lives of child actors no matter how squalid those lives may be.