by Neil Young, published on Thursday, June 8, 2006|
Though it deals with highly controversial, hot-button material, Hard Candy uses (exploits?) its explosive subject-matter for what amounts to a scriptwriter's exercise in the manipulation of audience sympathy. It's essentially a two-hander: gamine 14-year-old Hayley (Ellen Page) strikes up an internet chat-room relationship with 32-year-old photographer Jeff (Patrick Wilson). They meet in a coffee-bar and go back to Jeff's house(-cum-studio) where Hayley helps herself to alcohol and engages in mildly flirtatious banter with her considerably older new 'friend.' Jeff is bemused and intrigued, but says his work has taught him exactly where to draw the line with 'under-age' girls. Nevertheless, Jeff is sufficiently 'dodgy' enough for us to fear for Hayley's safety - despite her vivacious precocity. As it turns out, however, both protagonists have plenty to fear from the other...
It would be a mistake to say too much about the plot of Hard Candy, as Brian Nelson's screenplay is fundamentally all about the manipulation our expectations and sympathies. He's aided in this by the two strong central performances from Page (17 at the time of filming, unrecognisable from the sweet Kitty Pryde from X-Men - The Last Stand,) and Wilson (given rather more to do - and endure! - than his milksop turn in Phantom of the Opera.) Director Slade marshals a slick, archly stylised package - there's hardly any score to speak of (until the very end), and, though clearly not a big-budget production, the picture has an arrestingly glossy/edgy look thanks to Jo Willems's cinematography (claustrophobically intimate, artily colour-leached, mobile), Art Jones's sharp (and sly) editing, Jeremy Reed and Felicity Nove's Kubrick-cool production-design/art-direction and Richard Taylor's sound-editing (there are some queasily convincing squelches at a certain key juncture).
But despite these notable behind-the-scenes contributions, Hard Candy feels naggingly like a theatre piece that's been only very slightly 'opened out.' The story is very much told via the dialogue, in a series of repetitive exchanges between Hayley and Jeff where the 'upper hand' (cf Misery) is fluid and unpredictable. It's a cat and mouse game - but who is the cat and who is the mouse? By the end, we realise that it's actually a feud between cats - and we are the mice, or rather the lab-rats, guided through a rigid moral maze according to the script's exigences and imperatives. This serves mainly to dispel what could have been particularly wrenching tension and suspense - and is instead a bracing, but somewhat smart-alecky enterprise in neatly-executed, clinical twists: Hard Candy is very much the kind of picture self-satisfied Jeff might direct, very much the kind of script over-articulate Hayley might pen.
Rating: 6 out of 10