Starring Ellen Page, Patrick Wilson, Sandra Oh, Jennifer Holmes
Directed by David Slade
Opening with an eerie shot of a computer screen, Hard Candy immediately lets you know it’s not playing around. There’s tension in the air as we watch a flirtatious online conversation between an older man and young girl who agree to a real life rendezvous. We’re then introduced to Jeff (Wilson), a thirty-something photographer with a charming smile, and Hayley (Page), a well-read but impressionable fourteen-year-old. The two quickly hit it off in person before Hayley is coerced back to Jeff’s pad for a little fun.
One spiked drink later Jeff finds himself bound to a chair, and little Hayley shows her true colors. She’s a girl on a mission: To hunt down Internet pedophiles and make them pay for their crimes. What follows is a series of mental and physical tortures as “vigilante” and “predator” enter into a heated battle of wits. It’s with this set-up that Hard Candy poses the difficult question: Who is more disturbed?
Hayley is certainly no avenging angel. In fact, I’d fear any viewer that would completely rally to her cause (given the subject matter, there will no doubt be many who do). She’s an individual who takes her moral stance to such an extreme that she feels almost inhuman, and the filmmakers even go so far as to suggest that she might be a total basket case. On the other hand, does a heinous person like Jeff deserve our sympathies?
What Hard Candy does brilliantly is toy with your emotions. Writer Brian Nelson takes something that the entire world views as a black-and-white subject matter and paints it as one large grey area without veering off into the realm of exploitation. Your allegiances constantly shift, and you question not only both of these characters, but yourself as well.
This is a two-character piece set almost entirely in one location, so the film rests mainly on the shoulders of its cast. Teen actress Ellen Page (delivering the most impressive breakout performance in recent memory) gives her role a frightening sincerity, playing the difficult role of a hyper-intelligent, world-wary child. In the hands of another actor, this character would’ve seemed completely unrealistic, but with Page you believe every jaded word she spouts. Patrick Wilson is equally riveting as Jeff and succeeds in the difficult task of making his character sympathetic to the point where we begin to question his guilt or innocence.
Music video director David Slade (who is now hard at work on the long-awaited 30 Days of Night) makes an impressive feature debut here. Although he’s over-reliant on close-ups and annoying shaky cams, he directs with confidence and manages to control the film’s ever-shifting tone, which alternates between disturbing psycho drama and black comedy. There are even moments where he makes you laugh and cringe at the exact same time. I refuse to go into any details about the film’s harsher moments, but I will say this: Not since the last fifteen minutes of Audition has a film made me squirm this much.
The only problems surface in the final act when the filmmakers seem to lose the delicate balancing act with their characters. Last-minute revelations feel a bit jarring, and the presence of outside actors (including a superfluous cameo from Sandra Oh) distracts from the personal drama between Page and Wilson.
Flaws aside, Slade & Co. have crafted an intense, thought-provoking experience, the kind of film that has the ability to provoke hours of intense discussion among its viewers. Hard Candy is just that – difficult to take, but oh so sweet.
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