Hard Candy (DVD)
Directed by David Slade
Distributed by Lionsgate
It sure is an interesting time for Hard Candy to hit the DVD market. In this week alone the news has been full of stories about pedophiles and statutory rapists: Roman Polanski, who fled the US rather than face charges for having sex with a 13-year-old girl back in 1977, is slated to receive a lifetime achievement award at the 2006 European Film Awards; Debra LaFave, the attractive Florida teacher who had an affair with her 14-year-old student, pouted and posed with Matt Lauer on "The Today Show"; and some states like Alabama are actually considering applying the death penalty to serial child rapists and those who sodomize children. Even last week's episode of Showtime's cult comedy Weeds had the Uncle Andy character taking 12-year-old Shane to a prostitute for a handjob. No matter what your opinion may be on anecdotes like these, it's obvious that pedophilia is the new monster in the closet that just about everyone is terrified of. It's doubtful that any issue punches as many emotional buttons as this one, and spending some time with Hard Candy is the perfect means to get the conversation ball rolling among all the various viewpoints.
Prior to watching the film, I thought I had a pretty good idea of what Hard Candy is about: A precocious, wise beyond her years young girl turns the tables on a slimy, yet charming suspected pedophile, and the audience finds its sympathies being manipulated by the filmmakers to the point where some of them more or less end up rooting for the guy, leading to some sort of ambiguous resolution. Oh, if only it were that simple! As the film opens, Hayley, our aforementioned teen, is arranging a coffee shop meeting with Jeff, a photographer and the supposed slimeball, via an Internet chatroom. Yes, the thought of a 32-year-old man being interested in a 14-year-old girl is rather icky, but once we meet Jeff, he seems like a decent enough guy who maybe is just a little lonely and relatively harmless. After all, Hayley's the flirtatious one who prods Jeff into taking her home with him for drinks and a possible photo shoot. Stories like Lolita and Pretty Baby certainly weren't written in a vacuum; the older man/younger woman dynamic has been playing out for centuries, and even as recently as a few decades ago, it wasn't at all unusual or socially unacceptable for teenage girls to be initiated into the ways of womanhood by guys in their 20's and 30's. It definitely was the norm among my high school friends.
But times have changed, thanks in large part to the unrestricted and unmanageable nature of the Net, and besides, there is a huge difference between sexual experimentation and sexual predation, which is what guys like Jeff are all about. Or at least that's what Hayley wants us to believe. She drugs him, ties him to a chair, and begins tormenting him in various ways in an attempt to make him confess to not only his attraction to young girls (really, Jeff, why do you have all those pictures of pubescent beauties lining your walls?) but also his involvement in the case of a missing teen whom Hayley may or may not have known. And that's really all I have to say about the plot. Hard Candy needs to unfold on its own for the viewer. Even knowing that much is likely to lead one to have some preconceived notions about it, and I speak from experience when I say that the joy of this film is having those notions whipped from here to there and back around at least a few times.
The minds behind Hard Candy -- producer David Higgins, who came up with the idea in the first place; writer Brian Nelson, who fleshed out Higgins' story so beautifully; and director Slade -- wisely opted to construct the film much like a play with a series of reveals that suck in the audience by asking questions but never telling us what to think. It's not often that we're treated with such intelligence and respect. The producers knew what they were doing when they hired Slade as the man is a visual genius. His almost exclusive use of close-ups and boxed-in shots of the characters keeps us in the room with and in the heads of Hayley and Jeff at all times, ratcheting up the tension until it becomes almost unbearable. Those incriminating photos are never quite shown in their entirety, so we're left to wonder if they're really so bad after all. The camera stays neutral and detached, divulging nothing of guilt or innocence; and the use of colors in Jeff's house, from the vibrant red and yellow of the living room to his "fleshy" pink bedroom, takes us from hot anger to cool confusion in a heartbeat. Employing Jean-Clement Soret to do digital coloring and including other cutting edge techniques such as density shifts enabled Slade to give Hard Candy a truly unique look and texture that few big budget films achieve, much less one made for only $1,000,000. And his decision to not score the film was undeniably the right one. By utilizing only breathing and other organic sounds, ambient noises, and a few choice song snippets, Slade clearly shows his talent for creating a mood of apprehension and suspense.
But what really sets Hard Candy apart from the pack of indies crowding the market these days is its actors. Since it is essentially 100% character and dialogue driven, it could have easily turned into a boring -- or worse, melodramatic -- mess. Both Page and Wilson stretch the limits and are stunning. If they, along with Slade and Nelson, aren't at least nominated for Independent Spirit Awards this year, then something is seriously wrong with the process. Page, who hails from Nova Scotia, was fortuitously chosen out of close to 300 girls; and Wilson, who comes from a theatrical background, does an amazing job of making Jeff into a three-dimensional character rather than the typical smarmy child molester type we've all seen a million times before. They share duty on one of the DVD's two commentaries, and it's a lively one. They are highly protective of the film and each other and provide numerous details about the shoot. Not so pleasant was the physical and emotional toll experienced by the actors (Wilson passed out during one of his more grueling scenes, and both admit it was hard to leave their characters behind at times), but as you'd expect, neither would trade a second of it.
The other commentary gives Slade and Nelson a chance to extol the virtues of their two stars, the producers, and the crew. Their remarks often echo those of Page and Wilson as they discuss the genesis of certain scenes, bemoan the trials and tribulations of shooting a film like this in only 18-1/2 days, and provide an explanation of how the stark and simple title sequence came into being. There's also an almost hour-long making-of featurette in which primarily Higgins, Slade, and Nelson dissect just about everything you could want to know about Hard Candy from the writing and casting processes to its debut at Cannes and subsequent marketing. The extras also include six deleted or extended scenes, none of which have much to add to what is found in the final cut.
Most intriguing to me was the "Controversial Confection" featurette, which touches on the public's perception of and reactions to the film. As you might imagine, a movie that delves into pedophilia, gender issues, and vigilantism hit a few nerves! Ultimately, though, its underlying message is one of taking responsibility for your actions and keeping the lines of communication open about all of the above topics, and I personally don't see how anyone could object to that. But then again, I'm not much of a black & white world type person, and Hard Candy is all about the greys, which is where its brilliance lies. Since the "free cinema" heyday of the 1970's, films like this have unfortunately been very few and far between, and many of us hope it signals a return to that era. However, if you just flat out can't be open-minded about the subject matter, for whatever reason, then you should probably steer clear of it and avoid the aggravation.
When Jeff questions her sanity at one point, Hayley's response is, "I go back and forth on that..." much like many opinions of Hard Candy. Is it advocating vigilantism? Is it exploiting its young actress? Is it sympathetic to its villain? Who, in fact, is the villain, and who is the victim? Those questions and more, dear readers, I'll leave to you to answer. Myself? I go back and forth.
Audio commentary with writer Brian Nelson and director David Slade
Audio commentary with stars Patrick Wilson and Ellen Page
"Controversial Confection: The Soul of Hard Candy"
Deleted and extended scenes
Original theatrical trailer
Trailers for upcoming Lionsgate films
5 out of 5