by Steven Snyder, published on April 29, 2006|
Hard Candy is both as ambiguous, and as obvious, a movie as youre likely to find in mainstream American cinema. It pretends to show you everything while denying you any real knowledge, and judges its characters while also vigorously defending them. Its a product of the shifting moral ground of the 21st century, where the Internet has enabled us to lead double lives and explore our darker sides in relative anonymity, where the definitions of right and wrong are blurring amid high-speed modems and MySpace chat rooms.
At its core are three questions: What makes someone today guilty of pedophilia, what punishment is appropriate, and is it possible that the answers to both might be part of a sliding scale? In 1990, the first question was easy and the second a point of debate. But in 2006, both are as murky as the disappearing line between the virtual world and real world.
Brian Nelsons script cannot possibly be removed from todays headlines, which makes the story not only timely, but also somewhat urgent. Just a few weeks ago, the News Corporation announced that it was appointing a security czar to its immensely popular MySpace web site, and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales recently declared online child pornography an epidemic.
It is in this environment that Hard Candy begins, with a screen of instant messenging that evolves into a meeting between Jeff (Patrick Wilson) a suave, older photographer, and Hayley (Ellen Page), a young, bright-eyed high school student. Shes not 18, and he admits hell have to wait for her a few years. But when she insists on coming back to his place to listen to music he agrees, and even offers her some alcohol when they get there.
But something far more interesting takes place on Hard Candys way to a standard film about a manipulative man and a defenseless young woman. In the blink of an eye the tables are turned, the hunted girl now lashing out this manipulative older man, and the audience is shaken awake by a film that leaves all conventional formulas behind and instead pushes the issues of pedophilia, voyeurism and revenge to the front of the conversation.
Director David Slade moves incrementally, taking his characters further in their heated, violent debate one step at a time. Jeff surfs online chat rooms that host young teenagers does that make him a creep? He photographs young models does that make him a more likely molester? Hes downloaded porn does that make him evil? And Hayley thinks he represents the biggest danger for children who log on unsuspectingly is her form of justice correct?
Wilson and Page take this material and run with it. Wilson is the epitome of male rationalization. Sure, he says, he likes talking to young girls, but he never does anything with them. And Page is able to turn her riveting performance on a dime, in one instant eliciting our fear for this vulnerable young girl and in the next allowing us to vicariously live through her violent outburst against this man who comes to represent every online pervert.
The third act brings these themes together in a shocking twist that will make many in the audience cringe. Yet still through it all, these two archetypes keep talking, the debate keeps surging, and we cant help but open our eyes despite our squirming to try and come to some sort of a decision about it all.
If, as Hard Candy claims, the Internet enables us to pursue our darkest thoughts, then how must we redefine our notions of predator, victim and punishment? Its an uncomfortable question the question that Hard Candy never stops asking, form different angles, with different particular. Its a drama that plays like a horror film because we know theres no easy answer: deep down we fear there isnt any answer at all.