For best viewing of David Slade‘s feature debut, we’d recommend that whenever a character looks like he or she is about to spout some broad nonsense like "I am every little girl you ever watched!", you clap your hands over your ears and sing "Lalalalalala" until the moment passes. Sans these occasional aspirations towards being a revenge allegory, "Hard Candy" can be enjoyed as the glossy exploitation flick it is at heart.
So, a 14-year-old girl and a 32-year-old guy meet online, then at a coffee shop, and then go back at his swank house in the hills. The girl, Hayley, is at turns boldly flirtatious, precocious and disturbingly naive; the man, Jeff, is a smooth-talking, handsome professional photographer. These early scenes are fraught with almost unbearable dread (fortunately, the trailers have taken care of any doubts we might have that Hayley won’t turn out to be the victim she first appears to be). And then…and then.
"Hard Candy" has the whiff of a film that was adapted from a play â€” confined almost entirely to one location, a dialogue-heavy duel between two verbose antagonists â€” though it wasn’t. Screenwriter Brian Nelson is a playwright who was approached specifically for the project, and between the plot twists and power plays between Hayley and Jeff and Jo Willems‘ gorgeous, richly colored cinematography, the film never has the airlessness of most play adaptations. What it does have is quite a bit of camp appeal. Hayley (played gamely by pixieish Ellen Page in what was proclaimed the big breakout role of Sundance last year) quickly shifts from anything resembling a real person to an archetype: Little Red Riding Hoodie, wreaking vengeance on behalf of young girls everywhere. Hayley is impossibly smart, a great actress, and sadistic to the point of insanity, and by the end of the film one wonders if even the most wronged girl would condone Hayley’s actions on her behalf, as she pokes and prods at Jeff’s psyche to get him to own up to his own inner Big Bad Wolf.
The film’s set piece is a prolonged sequence replete with creative sound effects calculated to make every male in the audience protectively cross his legs. The cynic in us wants to say it’s the reason the film was picked up by marketing hook-happy Lionsgate…except how would you ever promote it in an ad? "Hard Candy" has one foot in the indie film world and one foot in the land of the B-movie, and we can’t help but think it would have been better off picking a side of the fence to stand on.
Opens in New York and LA.
+ Hard Candy (official site)