Cautionary tales make for poor stories. They prey on our fears rather than explore them and we can’t do much afterwards other than say, “Yep. I probably shouldn’t sleep with danger.” Instead, the richer drama comes from the characters who find their way into such a tale and discover the real emotions rather than just hold up warning signs. Trust is at its best when director David Schwimmer gives his film over to his wonderful lead actors and lets them play out the genuine heartbreak and anger that occurs when tragedy strikes. Unfortunately, Schwimmer never seems to believe in his story enough to let the performances carry the day and instead resorts to cheap tricks and unnecessary hand holding which turns the film from a powerful family drama into an episode of To Catch a Predator.
15-year-old Annie (Liana Liberato) has just received a new computer from her parents Will and Lynn (Clive Owen and Catherine Keener) and she’s chatting up a storm with “Charlie” (Chris Henry Coffey). Annie believes that Charlie is a young volleyball player like her, but slowly she learns that he’s older. When she finally meets him person, she discovers that he’s much older. He then proceeds to rape her via coercion. Annie can’t even admit that she was raped and thinks that Charlie is her boyfriend. Meanwhile, her parents, especially Will, are devastated when they discover what happened and must cope with the aftermath.
Andy Bellin and Robert Festinger’s script does a terrific job of taking the time to set up Annie’s home life and not making the character seem overly-naïve or stupid. Schwimmer and Liberato make Annie feel like a real person and we as an audience desperately want to protect her from the tragedy we know is about to befall her. It’s a slightly tougher sell that her parents would be so cool with their young daughter talking to a total stranger online, but the story wisely keeps the attention on Annie’s point of view and playing up the fact that, like any teenager, she’s trying to hide her private life from her mother and father. When we actually reach the scenes between Annie and Charlie, they make you sick to your stomach. Schwimmer wisely shows restraint and forces us to endure the ugliness of the scene without being gratuitous or exploitative.
However, once the film tries to deal with the aftermath, Schwimmer’s direction begins to falter. The story splits in two where we see Annie attempting to deal with her rape and Will coming to grips with his powerlessness and his misdirected anger. The scenes with Annie are tremendous and feel honest thanks to Liberato’s outstanding performance. But Will’s scenes feel heavy-handed and headed into the “cautionary tale” zone. For example, when Will goes to a gun store and gazes at the guns, that tells us everything we need to know about what he’s thinking. But Schwimmer feels the need to take matters further by showing us the revenge fantasy inside Will’s head. It’s unnecessary and unworthy of a story that requires absolute honesty.
The film mostly manages to keep a hold on the emotional drama, but during the credits, Schwimmer makes a major error. Obviously, this could be considered a spoiler so stop reading now if you don’t want to know how the film makes a serious mistake during the closing credits.
Trust ends on a note of understanding and reconciliation that feels earned by the strong work from Liberato and Owen. Schwimmer then proceeds to undo this uplifting moment by showing home video footage of Charlie over the closing credits. Yes, we need to be reminded that “Charlie” is still out there. And look! He’s a regular guy with a family! And he teaches at a school?! Be afraid, audience members. There could be a “Charlie” in your neighborhood. He may seem like a normal, friendly guy, but he could also be—(cue dramatic music)—an internet predator! It’s a cheap, hollow, epilogue that sends a solid family drama out on a sour note.