As I watched the film Trust and saw joy on the face of 14-year-old Annie when a man whom she was cyber chatting with called her gorgeous, I sighed.
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Not just because he was a predator more than 20 years her senior and I felt fear for her, but because it was a reminder just how early this yearning to be considered beautiful or pretty begins with us, the women in this world. Further, it brought home the point that even a confident, smart girl from a good home can be lit from within when a man does something as simple as compliment her appearance.
When Safe Horizon -- an organization in New York that “moves victims of violence from crisis to confidence” -- invited me to screen the movie at the Tribeca Cinema with representatives from the district attorney’s office, social workers, and members of the NYPD’s Special Victims Unit, among others, I knew I was in for a bumpy ride. The last time I’d had a similar invitation from them it was to see the film Precious. Where that story was horrific and I came away wanting to help, its horror was blessedly not relatable for me.
In Trust, director David Schwimmer has crafted an engaging story of what happens when a sexual predator permeates a home through a computer. He and writers Andy Bellin and Robert Festinger have captured the nuance of all the relationships around the victim – siblings, parents, friends, schoolmates – and how they’re impacted by such a traumatic event. But for me, a woman in her 40s, it tapped into a more universal place of female vulnerability about wanting external validation and the reasons for that.
“It’s a larger cultural issue for us, us as a country, to engage in a discussion about,” Schwimmer told me after the screening. “You have to look at a combination of things, I think, one of which I touched on in the film – advertising. Media and the sexualization of young people to sell products.”
Advertising comes into play in the film because it is the occupation of Annie’s father, movingly played by Clive Owen. It provides a powerful juxtaposition with the jarring sexualization of his own daughter, adding to his conflict or, as Schwimmer put it, his “culpability” in it.
Schwimmer also pointed to imagery in magazines, gratuitous violence in films, and the overall objectification we’re seeing in the entertainment world.
“I think we as a culture should look at that,” he said. “It’s also tough when there are very few role models that are celebrated in the media for young women. Role models today are the Kardashians, Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan. We’ve got a real problem. Unfortunately, a lot of these role models are women who got famous …using their sex. I think that’s the message we’re sending our young girls. If you do a sex tape, you can have your own perfume at Lord & Taylor. And you can make a lot of money being a huge celebrity. If that’s the message we’re sending to girls, what do you think they’re going to do? It’s a very complex problem and I certainly don’t know what the solution is.”
Pushback, I would venture, is part of the solution and Schwimmer is avidly participating in that. By creating a drama as opposed to a documentary, he had the artistic license to, say, add a layer of meaning with the father’s career in advertising. But what makes the movie so compelling is its basis in facts that Schwimmer has observed, both personally in relationships and through his work as a member of the board of directors of The Rape Foundation in Santa Monica, Calif.
“I happen to have many friends who are victims of childhood sexual abuse and I had two long-term relationships with women who were also victims of childhood sexual abuse,” Schwimmer said. “One, one of my longest relationships, was also a victim of date rape when she was a teenager. That experience of her healing process … was happening at a time when we were together … and I was part of that process.”
Right around Schwimmer’s third year on the sitcom Friends, Gail Abarbanel -- the founder and director of the Rape Treatment Center at Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center – saw the possibility of having him use his celebrity to fill a void she’d seen.
“Traditionally a lot of her work for 35 years about this issue is aimed towards women -- prevention and resources for victims, and education,” Schwimmer said. “She saw that there was a gap in this and that not enough men were being mobilized … she thought I could be a great tool to get the message out to men and frame it in a way [that says], ‘hey guys, these are our sisters, our daughters, our girlfriends, our wives, our co-workers, our colleagues’ and to try to raise awareness.”
That is why much of the focus of Trust is on the father-daughter relationship. Schwimmer hadn’t seen that done in film and after talking to fathers of rape victims over the years he knew that they have these feelings in common -- grief, incapacitating rage, shame, and failure. All of those are brought out in the film.
In addition, Trust shows the patience and cunning online predators have in setting up their prey, the complexity of the relationship the teen girl has with the predator even when he’s been exposed as a criminal, the vital role of the therapist in the healing process, and the challenges faced by law enforcement officials when the victim is a minor and the details are so excruciatingly personal. The performance of newcomer Liana Liberato as Annie is mesmerizing at times as she negotiates the fraught-filled terrain of an adolescent’s desire for love and acceptance.
In the question-and-answer session with the audience after the screening, Schwimmer noted with gratitude that actors Owen, Catherine Keener (Annie’s mother), and Viola Davis (the therapist) worked at a reduced rate because they found the script so compelling. He was also very gracious in mentioning Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL), which donated its products despite their use as the tool of choice for the perpetration of the crime.
The film has a limited opening on April 1 (Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Oklahoma City and Columbus) with wider distribution dependent on audience response. In a world where even adults trying to interact with one another online can be a precarious undertaking, I would hope viewers propel this movie and its important message forward in the interests of keeping more children safe from predators.
If even one less girl’s vulnerability is exploited, it will have been worth it.