Many films first thought of as “great” don’t stand the test of time. Just as true: many films that convince you to suspend disbelief while you’re watching them don’t hold water in hindsight. You know it’s a great film when, even once you’ve realized all the plot holes and idiocies, you admire how the filmmaker has executed his/her fantastical vision and find yourself willing to make excuses for the logical gaps. Going by that definition, Hard Candy is far from great. In the decade since its release, Hard Candy has been recognized in indie cinema circles as one of the art form’s great endurance tests. The initial premise alone is troubling enough: a man in his thirties, Jeff (Patrick Wilson), lures a fourteen-year-old girl, Hayley (Ellen Page), to his house through an online sex chat. There is a distinction to be made here between an ephebophile—someone who’s into young teenagers—and a pedophile—someone into little kids. Jeff is more the former than the latter (similar goes for Humbert Humbert in Nabokov’s Lolita), but if that at all diminishes the passionate controversy with which this theme is rife, it does so very slightly. There is no doubt that adults should not involve youths in romantic, let alone sexual, trysts; yet there remain questions on this subject that provoke debate and disagreement. Is chronophilia (the blanket term that covers ephebo- and pedophilia) a psychopathic impulse that demands punishment, or is it a psychological disorder that demands treatment? Is the concept of the “age of consent” too conservative for this day and age, when teenagers are so oversexed and parents so oblivious to it?
To these questions, Hard Candy adds more: Is there really such a clean distinction between “treatment” and “punishment”? What meaning does the distinction between childhood and adulthood retain when innocence in this world is lost so quickly, if kids are born with it at all? Hayley and Jeff meet up in a café named Nighthawks—after the Hopper painting, in a classic artsy move—and hit it off well, their age gap being more an interest topic for discussion than a point of discomfort. The budget being under $1 million, the production value is shoddy. The café has a whopping two extras in it and little background noise; the close-ups on Page and Wilson feel crammed and contrived. (The photography, by Jo Willems, becomes better later on, when there’s more space for the camera to roam, to view the characters from a safe distance, and to experiment with elliptical, cycling long takes.) If the film had been more honest about it being by essence a pas de deux between these two actors, it would’ve worked with them alone—no extras—in a space either more isolated (like a more high-end restaurant) or more open (a park). Not to mention, very conveniently for the narrative, the guy and girl talk across a tacked-up Missing poster for one Donna Mauer—a Chekhov’s gun that goes off way too early. Wouldn’t Jeff be more harrowing and cunning a figure if his crimes were done in the dark, with no police detection and no manhunt for him or his victims? Granted, the script by Brian Nelson is snappy, flirtatious and clever but firm and under control, like Aaron Sorkin without the ego, and the performances make the material work. Wilson is solid as a sexual predator sophisticated enough to appear as an everyman, and to persuade even himself that he is an everyman—as is the case with all like him. But let’s be honest, this is Page’s film.
This, not Juno, was Page’s breakout role. (No insult to Juno, of course.) This was where she established herself as one of her generation’s best actresses. Playing three years younger during production of this, she’s savvy and charming, neither too smart nor too naïve, letting you know in mere seconds that her kindness will not be taken advantage of. That’s the impression I got of her in Juno, and in the first half-hour or so of this film, by the end of which Hayley and Jeff are at his contemporary home, downing screwdrivers and discussing photography and music. (Whoever did the set design on that home should be complimented. It’s one hell of an architectural marvel—my favorite quotidian touch being the safe hidden under the bed of stones. As I’ve said, if the film wanted to be as theatrical and as pared down as it could’ve been, most of it could’ve afforded to stay in the home.) Then, Jeff passes out—and the film makes a belligerent about-face towards even more deranged territory. Turns out, Hayley’s been several steps ahead of Jeff the whole time and has made plans to give him a surgical castration—psychological torture masquerading as social service. This act of vigilantism is the centerpiece of Hard Candy, and it is where Page really shows her acting chops, switching with perfect precision between calculated violence, righteous vitriol, coy teasing and faux-generosity as she grills Jeff lying on his operating table, begging to keep his future kin. Throughout, she handles dialogue that would baffle most actresses twice her age. But more importantly, she avoids making her character easy to root for, and she and Wilson work to siphon all sorts of moral dilemmas out of this predicament. Even if Jeff is evil, is he any less human than us? Should we, or would we, go to the lengths Hayley goes to stop him from preying on girls?
Now, I must ask: why did Nelson and director David Slade have to ruin all this with a preposterous final act? They could have focused their entire story on their centerpiece—a raw, grisly spectacle looming on an inevitable conclusion. Had they drawn it and its Nighthawks prelude out a little longer and omitted all other presences besides Hayley and Jeff, Hard Candy would’ve been a hit. Instead, once the castration story is finished, all the tension fizzles out of the film like bubbles from stale soda. Left with nothing better to do, Slade and Nelson reduce their pas de deux to a half-assed wild goose chase that’s noisy enough to get the attention of a neighbor played by Sandra Oh. Oh is a strong actress. I remember her making a big impression on the nine-year-old me watching Big Fat Liar, in which she was Frankie Muniz’ no-nonsense English teacher. That’s a tertiary character, but she pulled it off so well that I held her in some esteem, young as I was, and learned to respect those always-recognizable character actors who refuse to phone in minor roles. Her role here should’ve been cut from the script. First, her character threatens Hayley’s power and thus also her status as the film’s villain. Then, she turns out to be too stupid to go all the way once she catches Hayley in her lies. Give me the script, and I would’ve moved the home to an isolated area, out of the way of all other residences, which would’ve made Jeff a wealthier and even more powerful and challenging figure for Hayley to dethrone. I would’ve also no doubt scrapped the final scene, in which Hayley devolves into a cliché, Jeff absurdly sees the light, the Donna Mauer subplot gets a ham-fisted ending, and a woman runs around the house screaming “Jeff!” while he’s duking it out for his life on the roof. The characterizations and moral dilemmas so carefully constructed over the last hour and a half are dispensed in favor of a nice, cozy wrap-up. How could these filmmakers have given up so easily? How could they have let a great film, with flawless performances, become such a cop-out?