Family life can kill you


Written and directed by Hal Hartley
Produced by Bruce Weiss
Starring Adrienne Shelly and Martin Donovan
Reviewed by Mario Giorgetti

Hal Hartley's first successful film, The Unbelievable Truth, an off-beat romantic comedy set in Long Island, New York, made a good impression at the 1989 Toronto Film Festival and propelled the writer-director to cinematic fame. Also set in Long Island, Trust, his second full-length feature film, looks at the problems of disaffected youth with clarity and compassion. A more mature piece of work, it deserves even greater success.

Seventeen-year-old Maria (Adrienne Shelly) is the main character of this fresh but slightly dark comedy set in the potentially alienating environment of suburban North America. A brash young brat with an attitude, Maria is a high school dropout and lives at home. Early on, she makes the unpleasant discovery that life in some families is dangerous and can actually kill you.

Things begin inauspiciously for Maria when she tells her parents that she is pregnant to her quarterback boyfriend and intends to marry him. She has a violent argument with her father, who throws her out of the house and then drops dead of a heart attack.

Her embittered mother, played by hard-faced Merritt Nelson, accuses her of having caused her father's death. She is dumped by her insensitive boyfriend, almost raped by a convenience store attendant and, as if her life wasn't complicated enough, she knows that out there somewhere there is a mentally disturbed woman who has kidnapped a baby. How can she trust anybody again?

Thrown willy-nilly into a screwed-up world, Maria wanders the streets bent on self-destruction. Enter Matthew Slaughter (Martin Donovan), a twenty-something-year-old, anarchistic, electronics whiz with a violent temper and a pathological hatred of television and inferior electronic components.

He knows that families can be destructive. "Family is like a gun", he remarks in one of his reflective moments. "You point it in the wrong direction and it could kill somebody." He keeps an old hand-grenade in his pocket for security. It gives him the feeling of being in control: he can pull the pin and self-destruct any time life gets too tough.

At first, the only things Maria and Matthew have in common are their feelings of guilt, self-loathing and a lot of pent-up angst. Neither has any direction or purpose; neither can see the possibilities that lie beyond their oppressed existence as emotional hostages of selfish and cruel parents.

But something inevitably draws them together and begins to transform their lives as they move hesitantly towards emotional maturity and the sort of middle-class normality that could turn them into replicas of their parents.

However, such deeply fractured lives are not easily mended. There are too many questions to answer and too many conflicts to resolve. Should abort it? Should she marry Matthew and risk becoming a victim of his immature and erratic behaviour? Should she tell the police what she knows about the kidnapped baby?

Finally Maria takes control and steers her life in a new direction, discovering in the process that there are hidden treasures to be found in ordinary things like books, hard work, compassion and, above all, trust.

This film, in its intimate visual style, its deceptively plain, linear plot and simple storyline, deals sensitively with complex themes and gives new life to the conflict between alienated youth, their families and the world. The terse, taut screenplay is refreshingly uncluttered with stock juvenile jabber and is spiced with intense dialogue and some zingy dead-pan humour.