There's a degree of surprise upon learning that Ross from Friends - sorry, David Schwimmer - has directed a thoughtful and probing drama about Internet grooming; it will be a surprise even to those who caught Schwimmer's sharp and well-acted directorial debut, the high-school reunion comedy Since You've Been Gone, and doubtless doubly so for anyone who can still remember Run Fatboy Run. Trust retains Schwimmer's eye for nuance and fine ensemble playing, yet comprises an accomplished move into altogether darker terrain, charting the turmoil of one family in a very contemporary, wireless-accessible Chicago.
While mom and pop (Catherine Keener and Clive Owen) are distracted steering their eldest son through his first term at college, their 14-year-old daughter Annie (Liana Liberato), struggling for recognition both at home and in school, strikes up a relationship with a stranger, first online, then over the phone, then - more troublingly - in person. "Charlie"'s identity keeps shifting, the source of several nasty surprises: first claiming to be 16, he then admits he's a college student in his 20s; when the pair finally meet up - in a memorably awkward, best-watched-through-locked-fingers sequence - he's revealed to be older still, and far from the gentleman he once claimed to be.
The script, by Andy Bellin, is very good on the knock-on effects of this encounter, giving Trust an unusually filigreed second act. Perhaps in the interests of self-preservation, Annie immediately assumes a false maturity, stubbornly maintaining a perspective very different from those of the furious and harried adults around her; her father, for instance, vows to rip out the throat of the man who assaulted his child, and sets out for the local gun store, oblivious to the irony that, as an ad exec, he nodded through the "sexy" marketing of undergarments similar to those the predator bought as gifts for his latest victim.
Owen seems to connect to this material in a way he's sometimes seemed to struggle to elsewhere, and Schwimmer, too, handles the pivotal sequences with an air of genuine parental concern: the airport motel scene, designed as a phantasmagoria of the worst wallpapered kind, is a demonstration of sound directorial judgement, what to show and what not to show, topped by a truly gut-wrenching POV shift that emphasises just what this girl is up against. At the centre of the scene, and indeed of the whole film, is a mini tour de force of adolescent confusion, defiance and vulnerability by Liberato, previously unknown but surely destined for great things indeed.
If the abrupt third act rather shortchanges the actress's contribution, the sober, resolutely unsensational handling of the material is a thousand times preferable to an eye-catching exercise like Hard Candy, which appeared far less concerned with online predators as an issue than as the basis for a Hollywood calling card. A gimcrack twist in the closing credits is Trust's one concession to commercial tastes, designed as it is to fill in the sketchy background of one of the film's characters, even as it keeps us on our toes; the rest is - like I said - a surprisingly effective dispatch from our hyper-sexualised, obsessively mediated world.
Trust is on selected release.