Monday, May 15, 2006

Hard Candy

HARD CANDY (David Slade, 2005)

Online chats between 14-year-old Hayley Stark (Ellen Page) and 32-year-old photographer Jeff Kohlver (Patrick Wilson) have gone well enough that they agree to meet face to face in a local coffee shop. In HARD CANDY it doesn’t take long for the conversation to lead to talk of going to his place. Jeff entices her with a live Goldfrapp CD that she might like. Haley, who fancies herself more mature for her age, doesn’t see anything wrong with slipping off to his home. It doesn't take years of watching sensational television news reports to know that this can't end well; however, HARD CANDY twists our expectations of the ugly outcome.

The red hoodie-wearing Hayley has some lessons in store for the big, bad wolf. Hayley believes Jeff is responsible for the disappearance of a local girl, and her experiences with him give her no reason to change her mind. HARD CANDY establishes an uncomfortable tone from the outset, but when Hayley turns the tables on the presumed pedophile, that uneasiness soars to a seat-squirming level.

As unpleasant as HARD CANDY can be to watch, director David Slade often favors implied violence. The film is told mostly through compelling close-ups of the two main characters. The technique creates an intimacy between Hayley and Jeff and the characters and the audience, which is why it is so deeply unsettling.

Page is astonishing as Hayley. As Alison Lohman believably passed for a 14-year-old in MATCHSTICK MEN—an actress with whom Page shares more than a passing resemblance—the now 19-year-old Page is equally convincing as a young adolescent, here as both a na├»ve schoolgirl and terrorizer of internet predators.

The same can’t be said of HARD CANDY’S screenplay, which stretches suspension of disbelief past the breaking point yet clamps one’s attention with horror. In the end HARD CANDY doesn’t have as much to say about online stalkers and the cultural sexualization of kids, teenage girls in particular, as it appears it might. It also runs out of steam after a long sequence that is one of the most unnerving things I’ve ever seen in a film. HARD CANDY is most assuredly not for all viewers, but those willing to subject themselves to it are in for a noteworthy performance and one of the most terrifying films to come down the pike in awhile.

Grade: B-

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