Agonizing over issues of faith motivated Hartley to write “Trust,” in which the heroine, Maria (Adrienne Shelly), is at war with her family. When Maria tells her father she's pregnant, he calls her a slut. She slaps his face, and he drops dead of heart attack. The situation is part nightmare, part bad joke, the perfect deadpan to kick off a movie. Based on mutual need, Maria enters into a friendship with Matthew (Martin Donovan), a morose electronics genius. Like Maria, he's abused by a sadistic father, who commands that he clean the spotless bathroom over and over again.

“Trust” chronicles what Hartley terms “the self-actualization of a teenager, conceived as part mall chick, part Cinderella, part Christ.” Progressing from a brat to a saint, Maria rises above the traps of wqorking-class suburbia and in the process transforms everyone around her.

Framed as a melodrama, “Trust” is replete with sexual assault, baby kidnapping, abortion, a Machiavellian mom, a drinking duel, a fistfight, and an hand grenade that threatens to explode any moment. It's a droll analysis of family violence and the moral courage to defeat it. Though “Trust”'s tone is more sober than the black humor of “Unbelievable Truth,” both suggest that all individuals are disturbed if one just looks hard enough.

If Hartley's style and sensibility are European, his thematic concerns are squarely American. His pictures deal with loyalty and betrayal, passion and loveless marriages, ordinariness and transcendence. But nothing is resolved: He leaves the characters in flux, always searching.

Hartley looks straight into what Americans fear, what they hope for. He makes films “about things I'm even embarrassed to articulate myself in polite conversation.” Like Sam Shepard, Hartley is obsessed with fractured families and the irreconcilable gap between parents and children.

However, Hartley's families don't look or sound like any other families in TV sitcoms or Hollywood movies. In one of Trust's memorable scenes, a character intones: “A family is like a gun. You point it in the wrong direction, you're going to kill somebody.”

Hartley's high-school themes recall John Hughes films, but Hartley emphasizes what Hughes leaves out, the core emotions of his teen protagonists. In Hartley's films, the negotiations between parents and children for power are in earnest, and they are not a game; there are real winners and losers.