After chatting and flirting online, Hayley and Jeff decide to make the jump to real life. They meet up at a coffee shop and trade charged banter, each one doing a little dance to intimate that they are interested without making it too overt or aggressive. It’s a courtship ritual between two together people who spark immediately, so they quickly shift locations to Jeff’s swanky house in the hills above Los Angeles.
So begins Hard Candy; it’s not some feature-length ad for Match.com, nor the cozy start to a cyberspace romantic comedy, but rather it’s something far, far more icky. See, Jeff is 32; Hayley is 14. Think that’s unsettling? Just wait. Article continues below
Haley, as played by a truly talented Ellen Page
, looks so young that her androgyny isn’t an aesthetic choice, but the result of a body not yet having developed into adulthood. There is literally no escaping how young this girl is, yet she speaks with such unsentimental intelligence and charm that she goes far past precociousness and into genuine maturity. Patrick Wilson
’s Jeff is confusing in his own way – he’s such a nice guy, so easygoing and normal and generally appealing. He makes all the right protests, says all the right things, has all the right humility. As written, their flirtation is a suitably awkward and genuinely likable opening to a sweet, burgeoning relationship. Except the girl is in middle school. So it is all kinds of wrong.
The pedophilia angle is immensely disquieting, to be sure, but then it gets worse. Because Hayley is not some innocent fly being lured into the spider’s den; she’s actually a very calculating young woman with some brutal, well thought-out notions of punishment. Things get harder to take as layers of guilt and abhorrent behaviors pile atop one another for both of them. She’s clearly a very twisted and disturbed young woman with some deeply wrong revenge fantasies, but… he’s a pedophile. There's no safe place to lay your loyalties on this one.
Hard Candy heavily relies on the strength of its two actors, since the entire film comprises these two slowly and relentlessly stripping one another bare. And it's a boon that both stars are quite stellar. Page is fantastic, managing to be both vulnerable and vicious – often simultaneously. And Wilson never defaults to merely playing the victim; he always has more secrets and shame festering under his surface. Director David Slade
, largely a veteran of assorted music videos, echoes the claustrophobia of the script with his affinity for extreme tight shots and artfully invasive camera work throughout. All the close-up work forces a reluctant intimacy with the characters, neither of whom are people you want to be particularly near to, which further blankets the film with tension.
This is not to say that Hard Candy doesn’t have its share of weak spots – the screenplay, by Brian Nelson, is oddly reliant on the unnecessary device/contrivance of Jeff’s ex-girlfriend, and the schemes and plans Hayley has in place are, once you step back, so over the top they are nearly laughable. This girl’s thirst for vengeance is a deeply rooted flair for the dramatic. And the conclusion, when it finally comes after the numerous twists and turns, left me somewhat unsatisfied.
But in reality, the largest liability for the film is its profoundly disturbing nature. This is, after all, a protracted revenge fantasy layered on top of pedophilia. It’s relentless and nerve-wracking and squirm-inducing. It’s the movie where someone says, “Was it good?” and they are met with a long silence before a hesitant “Yeeaahhhh…” Because you don’t like this movie; like a Todd Solondz film, it isn’t built to be liked. It’s there to be experienced, tolerated, and appreciated for the wretched, well-executed, difficult, artful, and appalling creation that it is.