Actor Clark Gregg, who’s best known for his Agent Colson character in The Avengers and ABC’s Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., has made a lot of friends in Hollywood during his nearly 25 years in the business. Or so it would seem from the stellar cast Gregg has assembled for Trust Me, his second feature film as a writer-actor-director (following 2008’s Choke). The Hollywood morality tale not only features Sam Rockwell, Amanda Peet, Allison Janney, William H. Macy and Molly Shannon but also an impressive performance of then-13-year-old newcomer, Saxon Sharbino. Her precociousness reminded us of a young Natalie Portman in Beautiful Girls.
Trust Me opens with Howard Holloway bleeding profusely from the gut, presumably from a stabbing or a gunshot wound. Gregg—both the actor and the director—then proceeds to backfill Holloway’s darkly comic story of redemption. Howard is a former child actor turned agent for younger actors, but from the looks of his beater car and decidedly non-90210 apartment address, he’s on a long losing streak. He’s rushing to an audition for his client, Phillip (Griffin Gluck), in order to talk the youngster down from a panic attack. Howard tries to play hardball with a casting agent (Janney) and loses—both the deal and Phillip. He’s been set up by the agency and archnemesis, Aldo (an over-the-top Sam Rockwell), using Phillip as a bargaining chip to sign the “Lohan kid” for the part instead.
Also at the audition, Howard believes he overhears an inappropriate casting couch session with a minor. As he’s probably one of the last agents with a conscience (a point that Gregg over-emphasizes), he barges into the room, only to interrupt Lydia’s (Sharbino) audition. The intrusion changes Howard’s life, as the prodigy soon asks him for representation. Her controlling father, Ray (Paul Sparks), is more skilled at navigating Hollywood bars than the casting system.
Lydia—like Sharbino—is a star-in-the making, and she’s on the cusp of signing a three-picture vampire deal, with the first installment directed by Ang Lee and Helen Mirren playing her mother. (There’s a quick, yet hilarious exchange of looks between Gregg and Sharbino as Lydia feigns excitement at the news of working with Mirren, though Lydia has no idea who Mirren is.)
Just as the film shoot’s about to commence, Howard uncovers a secret with Lydia that should be reported to authorities—but he’s up against film producer (Huffman), who wants the project to start on time at all costs. She even offers him an executive producing credit to keep his mouth shut. With the help of his neighbor and love interest, Marcy (Amanda Peet), Howard navigates the moral dilemma and ultimately serves his penance for past sins. Lydia, however, may be an even better actress than anyone realizes.
Gregg exposes Hollywood’s absurdly cutthroat business, even when dealing with child actors. The film shines during several pointedly funny, rapid-fire exchanges between Howard and the industry executives. (We wonder how much Gregg ripped from real-life situations.) But Trust Me stumbles when it employs occasional fantasy elements; one moment at the end is overly hyperbolic, and more of a distraction than anything else.
Despite the occasional biting dialogue, the supporting characters are largely one-dimensional stereotypes: egotistical, amoral and malicious. The personalities and temperaments of Janney’s and Huffman’s characters are so similar, they’re almost interchangeable. Lydia’s father is a drunk hick from the sticks that’s been played out onscreen innumerable times. And finally, Marcy’s the woman that Howard’s been pining for from the other side of the apartment complex for more than a year. She’s weirded out by her neighbor at first, but then Marcy inexplicably has a sudden change of heart, making out with Howard immediately after he asks her out. (We’ll chalk that up to her glass of wine.) The talent of the supporting cast bolsters their characters, adding depth where they can.
But then there’s Lydia. Sharbino deftly brings a mixture of innocence and maturity to the manipulative character. Lydia’s a great actress, and she has no qualms about using her talent to get exactly what she wants. Gregg, the director, also keeps the audience guessing as to whether she’s simply looking for a father figure or whether Lydia’s going to turn into a Lolita to Howard’s Humbert Humbert.
We’ve always known Gregg as a capable, nuanced actor, but with Trust Me, he proves himself a confident writer-director, as well. We’ll forgive the few missteps in the script and look forward to what the multi-hyphenate artist has in store next.
Christine N. Ziemba is a Los Angeles-based pop culture writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow her on Twitter.
Starring: Sam Rockwell, Amanda Peet, Allison Janney, William H. Macy, Molly Shannon, Saxon Sharbino
Release Date: June 6, 2014