Hal Hartley’s 1990 film, with its desperate misfits and downbeat mood, turned the teen comedy genre on its head.
It’s hard to believe that it’s been thirty years since Hal Hartley’s film Trust came out. At the time it looked like Hartley was going to be one of the greats. He never did quite fulfill that promise. But his influence on independent film was significant.
Trust tells the story of a high school student named Maria (played by Adrienne Shelley) who tells her family that she’s been kicked out of school, and is pregnant. Her father slaps her face, she leaves, and immediately thereafter the father dies of a heart attack. When it turns out that Maria’s oafish boyfriend won’t marry her, the girl is stuck living at home, where her mother (Merritt Nelson) expects her to slave for her in revenge for causing her father’s death. In the midst of one chaotic day, in which a convenience store owner tries to molest her and she witnesses the abduction of a baby from its stroller, she meets Matthew (played by Martin Donovan), a sullenly depressed young man who carries a live grenade around with him, works at a TV repair shop, and lives with his abusive father. Maria and Matthew spend the rest of the movie eyeing each other warily: can they learn how to trust?
This was Hartley’s second feature after The Unbelievable Truth, which also starred Shelley and explored similar themes. That was a good film, but the writing here improved. The dialogue is less showy, so the off-beat sense of humor seems to emanate more naturally from the characters. It’s not realism, though: Hartley injects his suburban middle class setting with a sense of absurdity and quiet outrage. A big part of what makes Trust so enjoyable is the way it turns “quirky” comedy conventions upside down. Instead of the usual sentimentality, we get the kind of desperation only a young person with no clue what to do with her life can feel. The humor expresses the darker emotions, and as the film goes on the subversion of easy sentiment attains its own kind of odd sincerity.
A good deal of credit goes to Donovan, an excellent actor who lends gravity and comic poise to an essentially ridiculous character. Hartley isn’t always in control—some of the scenes get out of hand, and the tone is uneven, but the film has a refreshing “cut through the crap” feeling to it. It’s hard to resist a story in which the girlfriend’s mother challenges the boyfriend to a drinking contest, and wins.
The movie had a liberating effect on American independent film, opening the door for stories about people on the margins, people who are anything but typical. Hartley took his place alongside David Lynch, Steven Soderbergh and others, as a force of subversive energy in American film. Trust is like an antidote to all the teen movies of the 1980s, an ironic end note to a materialist era.