This movie produced a visceral reaction in me like few others. If you have a young daughter, or granddaughter, it will make you want to spit nails. Or go strangle somebody. Or put burkhas on any girl you know under 21. And maybe all the ones you don’t know, too.
Annie Cameron (Liana Liberato) seems to be a perfectly normal high schooler: she spends much of her time on electronic devices of some type. She seems to have a nice, normal suburban family: Mom (Catherine Keener), Dad (Clive Owen), big brother about to go off to college, little sister. She tries out for the volleyball team, and is happy she made it. She has a best friend who works in the mall, and she’s been chatting with Charlie, a cool guy she met in a teen chat room. Charlie represents all her adolescent yearning for a cute boyfriend: he listens to her, he has a sense of humor, he asks her about her friends and family, he asks her how volleyball is going. Annie finds herself texting him frequently, even late at night, after her parents have gone to bed. He asks for a picture, and tells her she’s gorgeous. And because she’s so insecure and needy, she falls for it.
Is the hair standing up on the back of your neck yet? Sure, “Charlie” is a fake. He’s a grown man posing as a teen, seeking girls just like Annie---to befriend, to get them to trust him, and then he sets up the meeting. Before he does that, of course, he has to tell her, by stages, that he’s not the age he said he was at first. No, I’m not 16, I’m really 20, and a sophomore in college, but I was afraid you wouldn’t talk to me if you knew that right away. Well, actually, I’m 25, and the reason I didn’t tell you at first is because age isn’t important, anyway, it’s the fact that we’re connecting. Soul mates aren’t tied to a particular age, anyway. Well, actually, I’m not 25….
We anticipate with dread where there is headed. The unexpected part is not that he was, in fact, a middle-aged man seeking to seduce an underage teen, it’s that when he did, there was a part of her that still wanted to believe it was love. She felt betrayed by her best friend who turned her in to the school counselor, who turned her in to the police, who notified her parents, who told everyone else in the family. Now she’s confused and angry, but still insists she’s in love. Her counselor (Viola Davis) goes very slowly with her, but her angry Dad is ready to go pummel someone. He gets so obsessed with catching the creep that he ignores his daughter’s pain, as well as his wife’s. Annie, slowly realizing that she’d been merely victimized, and not sincerely romanced, quickly dissolves into self-loathing. “How could I be so stupid?” Everyone here is in agony. And this is a family that used to wear costumes to dinner on Halloween, just for fun. Now nothing seems to be fun any more.
This is an emotional wringer of a film, but it’s done marvelously well (hooray for David Schwimmer’s deft direction). There’s some fine acting supported by a wrenching story, and though many genteel folks seeking light-hearted entertainment will stay away in droves, they’ll be missing a very powerful film.
Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, Co-Pastor, United Presbyterian Church, Greenville , Texas