Beneath their black humor and outre quirks, cult movies — and movies that aspire to be cult movies — almost always look at life through sentimental, adolescent eyes. They’re about characters who are too weird/sensitive/crazy/ cool to fit in. Occasionally, when this view is pushed far enough (A Clockwork Orange, Pink Flamingos, Eraserhead), it can seem as bracing and dangerous as the best rock and roll. But in such films as Harold and Maude, Desperately Seeking Susan, and the new Trust, the cult-movie view turns precious and smug. It becomes a cheap way of flattering the audience, of pandering to young people’s coziest images of themselves as downtrodden but oh-so-soulful victims.
The latest film from writer-director Hal Hartley (who debuted with last year’s The Unbelievable Truth), Trust is about a couple of emotionally damaged misfits who find solace in each other — but it’s really about how superior they are to the coarse suburban boobs around them. Maria (Adrienne Shelly) is a 17-year-old punk tootsie who finds herself pregnant and abandoned by her jock boyfriend. Matthew (Martin Donovan), who’s around 30 but still sponging off his father, is a quiet, mopey rebel without a cause who flits from one job to another (currently, he’s repairing computers) and carries a hand grenade around with him, a symbol of the Festering Violence In His Soul. The two get together, but they don’t quite have a love affair; they’re more like commiserating best friends in junior high. As a filmmaker, Hartley is a kind of sophomoric executioner: His gaze is so pitiless that his characters practically end up sliced and diced. When Maria first hears the news that her father has suffered a fatal heart attack, her mother, with zombie-like detachment, says, ”You killed him — get out of my house.” Matthew’s widowed dad is a sadist who makes him clean the bathroom over and over again. Hartley no doubt intends all of this as satire, but his us-against-them posturing is as glibly self-righteous as the anti-adult sentiments in a bad John Hughes film.
The two lead actors hold the screen. Tiny Adrienne Shelly, with her full lips and searching eyes, has a waifish charm, and Donovan makes the most of Matthew’s overgrown-teen angst. He’s like a tall, virile Andrew McCarthy. Yet there’s a fundamental piety built into this relationship. Matthew, in marked contrast to the piggish convenience-store clerk who tries to force himself on Maria, shows virtually no sexual interest in his new soul mate. They talk of marriage, but their friendship, except for a couple of tender kisses, remains platonic — and the absence of erotic passion between them is their badge of honor. It’s what keeps them pure and nonexploitative. What makes this so phony is that, of course, it’s precisely when sex does enter the picture that relationships turn messy. Hartley has made a Harold and Maude for the age of AIDS, a comedy about two people who’d rather array themselves against the world than risk having to live in it. C