Viewers will spend much of this movie mentally imploring the characters on screen not to do what it is all too disturbingly clear that they are ineluctably drawn to do. This is a very scary movie with three stories about the disastrous consequences of revealing too much online. And the scariest part is off-line. Far more devastating than the painful consequences of the bad choices they make is the reason they make them, the yearning for connection.
Grief over the death of a baby drives a couple apart and they separately seek online support to make them feel less helpless and isolated and are ensnared by an identity thief. A devoted but distracted father does not know that his shy, sensitive son is being catfished by a couple of classmates, much less that the boy . An ambitious television reporter wants to write a story about an underage online sex worker, and that means she must get him to trust her. In their own ways, each of them is seducing the other for professional reasons.
These fact-based stories could easily come across as cheesy Lifetime dramas, but documentary director Henry-Alex Rubin (“Murderball”) gives it an intimate, natural tone. Sensitive performances from the entire cast are absorbing, especially Jason Bateman in his first full-on dramatic role as the father of the boy who thinks he has an online girlfriend and that she has asked him to send her a nude photo and Frank Grillo as the single father of one of the boys whose prank turns tragic.
The weakest of the stories involves the grieving couple, who decide to take things into their own hands when identify theft drives them to the brink of financial ruin and the revelations of their online activities drive them to the brink of marital disaster. But even that storyline has some gripping moments as the experience shocks them into talking to each other with more singularity of purpose and honesty than they have shared in a long time. The journalist’s involvement with the underage online sex worker has some superficially sleazy moments, but Andrea Riseborough (Wallis Simpson in Madonna’s “W.E.”) is excellent in showing us the character’s struggle with ambition, compassion, professionalism, and vulnerability. “It’s my job!” various characters cry out at different moments in the movie. It is just a way of declaring how that makes them responsible, and how it defines them.
As we have had to develop a new term, catfishing, to describe online relationships based on fictional character attributes, and even an entire television series on the subject, we are only just beginning to understand the way our brains are constructed to fill in the missing elements of these connections with elements from our own subconscious, a sort of romantic Rorschach test. What draws us in to these stories is the recognition that we bring so much hope and need to these online connections. But what keeps us thinking afterward is its reminder that while the in-person, real-life connections are what scare us most, it is because that is what we long for so deeply.
Parents should know that this cautionary tale includes nudity, explicit sexual references, very strong language, drinking and drugs, and underage sex workers.
Family discussion: Does this movie make you think differently about your online presence? How should the rules be changed? Why was it easier for these people to open up online than in person?
If you like this, try: “Trust”