Hard Candy (review)

Let Us Prey

I knew nothing — absolutely nothing — about Hard Candy when I went into it, except a friend of mine who’s a man and a critic who had already had a chance to see the film had said to me, basically, Heh, can’t wait to hear what you think of it. And an hour and a half later, I was floored and stunned and shocked and dismayed and I thought, Yeah, men and women are gonna have a lot to say to one another about this movie.

Some small things it does not hurt to reveal: Jeff (Patrick Wilson: Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera, The Alamo) and Hayley (Ellen Page) have been sexy-chatting over the Internet for a while, and the film takes place entirely on the day they finally agree to meet in person, at a local coffee shop. The thing is, he’s 32 years old, and she’s 14. He knew that already — he’s kind of a creep (my experienced and not-naive 30something cynicism told me at this point)… except that he isn’t: he’s attractive and seemingly aware of the weirdness of this, gently flirting with her but telling her he’s gotta wait four years for her. He’s charming without being too obviously aggressive, which the 30something cynic in me knows is how predators like Jeff work while the 14-year-old girl I remember being would have been as awfully flattered by his attentions, as Hayley certainly is, and so I understand why she uses the opportunity to playact, to try out this womanly influence, to discover what it feels like to have this bit of dominance over a man.
And so, after a little more shy banter, they go back to his place…

And that’s where I have to shut up about what happens: it’s nothing you’ll expect, not in your wildest, darkest, grimmest fantasies, and yet it is all about the push and pull of sex and attraction that we’re all familiar with. How we fear the power and how it can control us and still sometimes willingly embrace the danger at the same time, even as we know, we know it’s going to get us into one kind of trouble or another. (Heartbreak always lurks, of course, but there are more intense, more visceral perils to be on the lookout for, too…) How there are feelings and desires we can keep tamped down, and some we can’t, and some we might not even be aware of until driven into a corner we didn’t even know existed.

It’s intriguing to me that Hard Candy comes courtesy of two men: it’s the first feature from music-video director David Slade and TV scriptwriter Brian Nelson. Because they get Hayley so right. Yes, the thing that everyone will be talking about after seeing the film may be more, um, more than your average teenager would, um, do, but everything else about her is just perfectly evocative of female adolescence, of the manic mood swings and the wild ride of hormones combined with the societal expectations that come with being basically a child in a woman’s body: one moment she is a child, and the next she’s almost so terrifyingly sophisticated that it makes you question the idea that she could be just a child, and both extremes of the pendulum are right. Ellen Page — who was 17 when the film was shot in 2004 — is spectacular, and there will be debates about Hard Candy that will question its plausibility. It works because of Page.

And Wilson, too — it’s merely that his role isn’t quite as challenging as Page’s, and he ain’t a mere pup of 17, either, but an acclaimed stage actor. Which works especially well here, because this is very much a two-character play — it could quite easily be translated to the stage. Wilson does, though, deserve special kudos for willing to be so, er, vulnerable onscreen, in a way that, I suspect, very few actors would be comfortable with.

What happens in the big centerpiece of the film is something that very few men in the audience will be comfortable with, and this may end up being one of those cinematic litmus tests: either you’re a confident guy who can handle a film like this, or you aren’t. How women react to Hard Candy will be interesting, but more intellectual — what would you do in Hayley’s situation?

For men, it’s sure to be very primal — so primal, in fact, that my male film critic friend and I wondered, without coming to a conclusion, whether Hard Candy is nothing but pure exploitation, and if it’s okay to love the film anyway, even if it has nothing to offer but sheer terror. I think there’s plenty metaphoric about the power struggles between men and women when it comes to sex to raise Hard Candy above the level of mere horror… but that isn’t to say that this isn’t one of the most horrifying movies I’ve ever seen, or that I’ll really ever be able to get past the shock of it to truly think about it in a really rational way.

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