104 mins, rated R18+, opening in cinemas on 13 July 2006.
(This review originally appeared in the July 2006 issue of the NSW Law Society Journal).
By MICHELE ASPREY, Lawyer
Hayley Stark is 14 years old. She is fooling around on the internet,
instant message chatting with a stranger. After some teasing banter
they agree to meet IRL (in real life) at a coffee shop. The stranger is
Jeff, 32, a successful, attractive photographer. After more suggestive
chatting, Hayley (who wears a red-hooded jacket) goes home with Jeff,
mixes the cocktails, and then…
Hard Candy is a tough little movie. It is also schizophrenic. Is it a
serious exploration of the guilt or innocence of an alleged pedophile?
Or is it a glorified vigilante film with an added slice of
sadomasochism, exploiting its young female lead in the same way as a
pedophile might? According to producer David Higgins, Hard Candy is
based on a real life cases in Japan, where schoolgirls turned the
tables on older men searching the internet for under-age girls.
The film is essentially a two-hander with a couple of scenes shot
externally. Most of it consists of a dialogue between Hayley and Jeff –
in fact more of a cross-examination – back and forth between the two.
Who is the predator and who is the prey? Our sympathies bounce to and
Because of this structure, the film depends heavily on the performances
of the two leading players. Luckily they are up to the task. Hayley is
played by Ellen Page, 17 when she made the film, and almost unknown
outside her native Canada. She handles her complex role superbly. We
believe she is only 14, even as we marvel at her intelligence and
articulacy. It is a bravura turn, and we will hear more of Page in the
Patrick Wilson (Angels in America, Nichols, 2003 and Phantom of the
Opera, Schumacher, 2004) is also excellent in the tricky role of Jeff.
He gains our sympathies at times, and leaves us guessing until the end:
is he a pedophile or is it all a terrible mistake?
The script, by esteemed playwright Brian Nelson, is often clever, but
sometimes a bit too clever. Nelson seems to be trying for something
like the dialogue of Mike Leigh’s Naked (1993), which featured David
Thewlis as the most articulate and intellectual existential anti-hero
imaginable. But the effect in Hard Candy is often try-hard. There are
too many knowing Hollywood references: to Jean Seberg, Jodie Foster,
and even an egregious reference to Roman Polanski (whose film of Ariel
Dorfman’s play Death and the Maiden, this film resembles). And for all
its superficial wit, there are no real insights to be had.
The first 40 minutes or so of Hard Candy are quite riveting, but at
times Nelson’s playwright past is too evident, and it takes the
considerable ingenuity of first-time feature director David Slade to
distract us from the rather contrived set-up. The film makers’ other
mistake is to go on too long. I rarely criticise a film for its length,
but here the characters reach an emotional and psychological climax
long before the film ends. The rest is mainly repetition and
The film is helped by its very striking production, set, and sound
design, and its cinematography. Colour and music are used to signify
each of the main characters and to underscore their emotional states.
The opening credits, too, are very striking – Mondrianesque black,
white and red squares signal something very stylish to come.
But for me, all that skill and style can’t disguise the deeply
manipulative core of Hard Candy. The film makers could be accused of
doing exactly what Hayley accuses Jeff of doing: using and abusing a
young girl for their own (and our) entertainment. It’s no co-incidence,
in my opinion, that the writer, director and the producers are all
male. But is this just a contrived and implausible male fantasy,
designed to merely to titillate us, indulge our fantasies, and then
shock us? (There is one jaw-dropping sequence involving an ice-pack and
a scalpel.) Or is it a stylish and well-constructed discussion of
pedophilia and how to deal with pedophiles?
You be the judge. But be warned. Either way, Hard Candy will make you