A controversial film that understandably divided audiences when it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, "Hard Candy" is difficult to lump into any one genre category and just as difficult to get out of the viewer's mind. At once a psychological thriller, a horror picture, a twisted wish-fulfillment fantasy and a grim morality tale, the film provocatively questions what might happen if a possible pedophile were to pick up an underage girl just as savvy and calculating as he. With very little physical onscreen violence, blood or sexual content, first-time director David Slade and screenwriter Brian Nelson have created an intense and disturbing experience that proves just how effective the power of suggestion can be.
They meet online in a chat room and begin talking via Instant Messager, bonding over things like their favorite music groups and then moving toward a mutual flirtation. Before long, 32-year-old photographer Jeff (Patrick Wilson) and 14-year-old Hayley (Ellen Page) have agreed to meet at a coffee house, and not long after that, he has taken her back to his house. With pictures of nubile teens in seductive poses prominently displayed on his walls and several bottles of hard liquor in the offering, it is obvious what Jeff hopes might happenor is it? What he is not expecting is that the impressionable-acting Hayley has other plans for their afternoon together. Looks can be deceiving, and she isn't quite as innocent as she's letting on.
To say much more as to where the plot ultimately leads would be criminal. One of the fascinating things about "Hard Candy" is its constant unpredictability as director David Slade creates a tricky balancing act of conflicting emotions within the viewer. With the tables constantly being turned and both characters shifting between protagonist and antagonist status, Slade chooses subjectiveness over easy demonization. Jeff may or may not be a horrible pedophile, and he may or may not be involved in the recent disappearance of a young teenage girl in the community; despite the possible evidence of both, he grows to occasionally become a rather sympathetic individual when placed in some nightmarish situations that you would hardly wish upon your worst enemy. Hayley, meanwhile, segues between being a vulnerable, albeit wise-beyond-her-years, child, and a dangerous teen who could be suffering from psychotic tendencies. The war of words between Jeff and Hayleya battle of the sexes, if you willis as frightening and unsettling as any gore-drenched horror movie of the last year.
Essentially a two-person dramathe only other character of note is a suspicious next-door neighbor played by Sandra Oh (2004's "Sideways
")the dialogue-heavy "Hard Candy" could make for a great stage production. The performances are certainly up to the task, with Patrick Wilson (2004's "The Phantom of the Opera
") and virtual newcomer Ellen Page mesmerizing as Jeff and Hayley. Both roles are demanding, to say the least, with Wilson required to convince the viewer (and hopefully Hayley) that what he is saying is the truth in order for Jeff to be someone worth caring about. Page has an even stickier task; without learning much about who she is really is as a person, Hayley wavers between seeming dignified in her actions and being out of control. Because of this, her intentionally shady character frustrates on more than one occasion, as you find yourself wanting to shake some sense into her just as much as you yearn to stand behind her cause. Page is up to every challenge, holding the poise, tenacity and complexity of a performer more than twice her age and with five times the experience.
A loose role-reversing version of "Little Red Riding Hood"Hayley eventually even wears a red-hooded sweater"Hard Candy" builds a thick coating of apprehension and a queasy feeling in the pit of the stomach that is sometimes difficult to take. The film's story details aren't always as believable as its actors, however. A certain suspension of disbelief is needed, for example, to accept that a 14-year-old such as Hayley would be capable of doing what she does, as well as speak with the maturity of a 30-year-old.
If one is to take the picture solely as a pitch-black fable, though, the inconsistencies with Hayley's actions and her age serve a larger purpose in the grand scheme of things, with a world portrayed that is capable of coldly administering just desserts on a criminal wrongdoer, even under the guise of a girl barely out of middle school. As "Hard Candy" edges toward a stark conclusion that lands somewhere between hopefulness and pessimism, director David Slade doesn't guarantee that audiences will agree with what happens, or how it happens, but he doesn't need to. In the contrasting realms that Jeff and Hayley occupy is a sick kind of logic both vastly discomfiting and nearly impossible to shake.