In Clark Gregg’s second directorial outing, he pays homage to Hollywood talent agents in a deeply felt, wholly realized, but depressing tragedy.
Before 2008, actor Clark Gregg was most certainly one of the ubiquitous “Hey! It’s that guy!” character actors. Rarely a leading man, Gregg spent years cracking out reliable supporting performances in movies and TV shows of varying budgets, gently establishing himself as a show biz stalwart. Indeed, in 2008, when he appeared in Iron Man, Gregg was still occupying the “stalwart cop” role in a big budget Hollywood actioner. He also directed his first film that year, a crass and okay-I-guess adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s Choke. It wouldn’t be until the next year – when Disney officially put the whole Avengers rigmarole into action – that Gregg would become something of a recognizable face in the geek community. He is currently the lead actor on a well-regarded superhero TV show called The Cape. I kid, I kid. I know it’s Marvel’s Agents of M.A.N.T.I.S..
Given his position as a supporting character actor, it then makes sense that Gregg should write and direct (and star in) a feature film all about a talent agent. Gregg has likely spent a lot of time in audition rooms, seeing other talented (and perhaps not-so-talented) actors stroll past him running lines, hoping to get a tiny part in one scene of a TV show. He has likely brushed elbows – as all actors do – with numerous talent agents, some sleazy and Machiavellian, some well-meaning and hard-working, all reaching seemingly random levels of success. Given his workmanlike career, Gregg likely has a special regard to agents, and wanted to may them homage. They’re not all money-grubbing backstabbers, as we typically see in movies. Some of them are actually good at knowing and selling talent.
In Trust Me, Gregg plays a talent agent named Howard who wrangles child actors for a living. Howard rides the line between humbly charming and fall-on-your-face pathetic. His desperation is palpable, and his practiced smiles and glad-handing – while distracting – often only serve to highlight his longing for success. When Howard loses one of his biggest deals, he finds himself – partly in a last-ditch effort for success and partly because he is genuinely impressed – attached to a 13-year-old girl named Lydia (Saxon Sharbino). Howard must now leverage this genuinely talented young lady into a starring role (there’s an in-film Twilight-like film that she is ideal for and a guaranteed star-making turn), while fending off the slimy rich poacher (Sam Rockwell), and the girl’s ignorant father (Paul Sparks) who may or may not be abusing Lydia.
Trust Me is a small, sad, gentle little flick that falls into a spiritual matrix that occasionally overlaps with David Mamet and Sidney Lumet, but with a much smaller scope. This is not the tale of a frantic need for wealth, or even eventual success. This is a movie about gentle redemption, trying to be honest in a world that discourages it. And, as Trust Me progresses, the emotional baggage piles higher and higher until we realize that we’re not looking at a satire or a fun story about people succeeding, but a tragedy about flaws, flawed people, and how easy it is to rise and fall depending on the money-driven tide of child actors in Hollywood. Will Lydia be corrupted? Will Howard? We read casually about actors re-signing or being cast in big-budget movies, but we rarely stop to consider how much emotions are at stake in certain choices.
Howard spends portions of the film resisting Hollywood wealth and shallow, temporary promises of fame; he has on-screen fantasies about giving in, but does not. I find it curious that the actors and directors who were once involved in 2008’s Iron Man are now making movies about fleeing the mainstream Hollywood system, and trying to do something smaller and more honest with their artistic impulses. Jon Favreau’s Chef, from a month ago, had similar themes. Now Gregg has made a film about trying to be a father figure when the system expects him to be an abuser and exploiter. These men seem to be openly declaring that they have more to say beyond the Marvel-based blockbuster system.
If Trust Me is any indicator, Gregg is a talented budget director of surprisingly downbeat, tonally staid, wholly effective tragedies. He has a touch of humanity and honesty to his work that can competently outstrip any contrivance the situation may be.