Grown men who scour Internet chat rooms for teenage girls and boys are known as child predators. These irresponsible and despicable adults prey on confused adolescents who think that because they act like adults, they should partake in mature acts. The pre-teens and teenagers are the victims, not the perverted men who claim to be “lured,” “enticed,” or “teased” into acting upon their typed intentions.
Take Dateline’s “To Catch a Predator” for example. A young girl flirtatiously types to a horny older man. The horny man responds by crossing the “what’s-okay-to-say-to-a-teenager” line and maybe even sends the youngster naked pictures of himself. The man drives to meet the under-aged girl and brings her the food, alcohol, or condoms that she requested (which helps to prove intent). Then, Chris Hansen comes out from either behind a curtain or through an open doorway to question, embarrass, and bring the man to justice.
With a title derived from Internet slang for an under-aged girl, Hard Candy is a peek into this same process of a “playful” online chat (between Lensman319 and Thonggrrrl14), an “innocent” meeting at a local coffee shop, and even a “friendly” rendezvous involving alcohol at the man’s home. However, the Dateline crew isn’t present. Fourteen-year-old honor student Hayley Stark (Ellen Page) is left to fend for herself.
The man she meets is a handsome 32-year-old photographer named Jeff Kohiver (Patrick Wilson). While Jeff’s intentions seem clear from the get-go, predicting Hard Candy’s twists and turns is like a pedophile anticipating Chris Hansen suddenly emerging from a closet with a chat log in hand. Just when you think you have the characters and their actions figured out, guess again.
The unwavering interaction between the two leads gives rise to the film’s heightened suspense. As tension builds with each passing minute, you find yourself continually questioning the leads’ motives and truths. Neither individual is above suspicion. What are their objectives? What have they done?
Thankfully, British director David Slade keeps his feature length debut intimate. Nearly every camera angle frames the majority of either Page’s or Wilson’s face. While this allows for a better view of Page’s freckles and Wilson’s whiskers, it also maintains the dual character focus and allows the story to be told through facial expressions. When Hayley squints at Jeff, we buy her intensity. As Jeff sweats, we feel his vehemence. It’s all there in their faces.
Perhaps Slade’s experience directing mostly music videos aided in his unorthodox obsession with the close-up. On the contrary, maybe his lack of experience directing feature films resulted in the elementary overuse of the zoomed-in view. Either way, his vision is fitting, tight-knit, and sound. Considering the storyline demands intimacy, it is hard to imagine Hard Candy served any other way.
If you thought Ellen Page was worthy of her Oscar nod in Juno, you should see her in Hard Candy. Shot in 2005, Hard Candy features a younger and shorter-haired Page, raw and not playing a pregnant female. Her character is mature beyond her years, and her acting is faultless. Into the bargain, Wilson keeps the audience guessing if his outer shell is merely a veil covering a putrid underbelly. Is he irreproachable or a pathological liar?
As for the other characters, only three are credited: a coffee clerk (Gilbert John), a neighbor (Sandra Oh), and someone from Jeff’s past (Jennifer Holmes). Keep in mind though, that these three ancillary characters are not given more than a few minutes of face time and a handful of lines combined. Again, the two-person relationship is the heart of Hard Candy.
When all's said and done, Hard Candy is exceptional. Its acting is forceful, and its script commanding. Even though its content can become discomforting and even stomach-churning at times, stay open and committed to the picture. It’s hard-nosed, yet refined. The cohesive experience is a thrilling cinematic indulgence.
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