Far too rarely, a film comes along with perfect chemistry between writer, director, and stars. Even more infrequently, the active participants are virtual unknowns who seemingly come out of nowhere to create a winning cinematic achievement, bringing out the best of each other in the process. With the arrival of Hard Candy on DVD, the latest such accomplishment is now readily available to the masses.
The film tracks the first live encounter between a 14-year-old girl and a 30-something man following an online relationship. Admittedly, right off the bat it’s a creepy concept, but it’s not at all what it seems to be at first. Hayley and Jeff have been flirting in an online chatroom and agree to meet at a local dining spot, where we’re surprised to find they defy expected conventions.
The girl is smart, witty and personable, while the man appears to be decent, conservative, and charming. Instead of warped, damaged individuals, they both seem to be fairly normal people who could easily seek out and find companionship with others their own age. This is just the start of the film’s outstanding job of toying with our emotions and opinions as we have no clear indication of who to side with from the outset.
Eventually, the pair return to Jeff’s home at the request of Hayley. Note that Jeff didn’t coerce her to go to his home, but at the same time he didn’t prevent it. Upon arrival at his home, we learn Jeff is a photographer with a fondness for teenage models, as evidenced by prominently displayed photographs adorning his walls. He’s shot many other subjects, but only the teen girls make it onto his walls. Hayley isn’t phased by the pictures, and Jeff downplays their significance, reinforcing the idea that they’re both not quite what they seem.
Wouldn’t a regular teen be freaked out by the pics? And wouldn’t a lecherous man immediately start trying to use them to press his advantage? The film offers no easy answers, adding to the mystery as further events start to play out. And play out they do, with stomach-churning intensity that keeps viewers on edge until the very end.
It would be so easy for the film to take sides and turn this into a diatribe on the dangers of online relationships, but the creators wisely avoid preachiness and instead present a horrific situation with no moral winner. As a result, the film is likely to generate highly polarized and passionate viewer opinions on the motives and righteousness of its characters.
The role of Hayley is played to perfection by Ellen Page, a young actress with a sizeable list of mostly Canadian, indie film and TV credits but no mainstream exposure aside from a minor role as Jubilee in this year’s X-Men: The Last Stand. She really is a teenager, making her range and complete command of the screen all the more impressive. Her co-star is Patrick Wilson, also little known but absolutely superb in his difficult role. Sandra Oh gets a credit as the most recognizable member of the cast, but her contribution amounts to small, unimportant cameo filmed primarily as a favor to Page based on their previous work together.
Director David Slade is another former music video director making his feature film debut, but don’t hold that against him as he puts in a masterful first effort here. His work on videos apparently trained him on how to get the most flash out of the least cash, as the film has a glossy, highly professional look that belies its small budget. Finally, the spectacular original script is from another film rookie, Brian Nelson, successfully venturing beyond his previous TV script work. Happily, Slade and Nelson are teaming for their next feature as well, an adaptation of the innovative vampire graphic novel 30 Days of Night that now appears to be in extremely capable hands.
The movie is a two-character study filmed almost entirely on one set, making it all the more amazing that it’s able to completely control our attention for its entire length. It sucks in viewers from the first scene and never lets up, increasing the tension and intrigue all the way through to its unexpected conclusion. To enhance the static setting, Slade incorporates interesting use of color backgrounds and some digital color manipulation, even going so far as to have his digital colorist alter the shading as scenes progress to change the mood. He never goes for the cheap scare, allowing the power of the actors’ performances to carry the work rather than relying on gimmicks to juice it up. It’s an intelligent, thrilling, and thought-provoking project that will hopefully lead to further success for all of its primary talent.
The DVD is stuffed with bonus features, eschewing the typical bare-bones approach of indie films for a lavish selection of extras including dual commentary tracks from both the creators and actors, deleted and extended scenes, a lengthy and informative making-of documentary, and a DVD-ROM production notebook that includes the entire script with original storyboards and notes.
Written by Caballero Oscuro