Despite a character-actor career that’s lasted well over two decades, Clark Gregg wasn’t a child actor in Hollywood. But he’s probably seen his share of them, which may be why in Trust Me, his second feature as a writer-director, Gregg is able to nail the look of a kid star all grown up: ghosts of cuteness in his face, surrounded by receding hair and worry lines. He’s playing Howard Holloway, a former child performer turned low-rung agent who specializes in child performers. He’s also playing deferred dreams personified.
The grown-up child actor remains a favored movie-about-movies metaphor for the way the film industry wrecks psyches and creates bottom-feeding anxiety. (See the Canadian film Childstar and the all-American junk of Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star—or, actually, don’t). Trust Me has the usual abbreviated timeframe of a satire about scrambling Hollywood types—it spans about 36 hours—and has the sound of one too, flecked with sputtered hair-trigger profanities that are supposed to seem rawer and more shocking than they actually are. The non-blue dialogue plays up the desperation: “Don’t you love me anymore?” Howard demands as a client slips away. But after establishing the agent’s pathetic bona fides with obvious details like his dedication to a half-busted phone earpiece, the movie bypasses its cheapest possible jokes. Instead, Gregg the director uses tense handheld shots of Gregg the actor to draw out the petty suspense of Howard’s deal brokering. The dark comedy has real tension.
During an early, disastrous negotiation, Howard meets up-and-coming teenager Lydia (Saxon Sharbino), accompanied to auditions by her volatile father, Ray (Paul Sparks). Howard notices her charisma and the prospective dollar signs, and spends much of the movie angling to represent her (and maybe save her) as she goes after a part in a Harry Potter-ish fantasy franchise. Unfortunately, Sharbino is the weak link in a strong cast. As written, Lydia needs to convey not just radiant talent but heartbreaking vulnerability alongside the self-assured moxie of a seasoned Hollywood player. It’s triply wounding, then, that Sharbino’s off-script savvy never comes off the least bit convincing; her low, sardonic whisper sounds like Chloë Grace Moretz at her most stilted.
The adults fare better. Gregg does convincing work as a hustler who seems unsure about how much of a jerk or hero he can be, and he gives his Rolodex a workout to fill out the other grown-up roles. In his feature debut Choke, he cast Sam Rockwell as the lovable loser and himself in a supporting role; they switch here, with Gregg as the dope who can’t catch a break and Rockwell ably stepping in for a few scenes as his smarmy rival. Amanda Peet, playing Howard’s down-to-earth neighbor and crush, spits out some snappy dialogue, making his puppyish devotion to her understandable.
An entertaining, adult romantic comedy could be built from the chemistry between Gregg and Peet. But Gregg the filmmaker has darker impulses and as Trust Me gets twistier and more serious, it also veers toward pity for its central character (which reads as self-pity for the filmmaker, fairly or not). Gregg clearly sees Howard’s story as more than another vicious Hollywood satire—and admirable though his intentions are, he overreaches. In place of the easy showbiz-corruption potshots the movie avoids, there are equally tired, flashbulb-lit dramatic ironies. Like a cocky insider, Trust Me touches success only to throw it away on a gamble.