The Internet is a veritable minefield of perverts and stalkers, and anyone who's tried online dating knows the potential hazards of actually meeting the person sporting some clever screen name.
So when 14-year-old Hayley (Ellen Page) agrees to meet her 32-year-old e-buddy Jeff (Patrick Wilson) at a café, director David Slade's intentions become abundantly clear: to make theatergoers writhe in their seats. When Hayley suggests that they go back to his house to listen to a bootleg concert recording, our internal alarm bells go berserk. Could this bright and wildly flirtatious young girl really be that stupid?
Balancing its disturbing subject matter with a cockeyed sense of humor, Slade and screenwriter Brian Nelson concoct a riveting two-character psychological thriller that unabashedly exploits our feelings about pedophilia and feminist revenge fantasies. This isn't a cautionary tale about sexual predators. The filmmakers have one goal: to make you squirm.
Back at Jeff's stylish house, our assumptions about who is the predator and who is the prey are abruptly flipped. It seems young Hayley has a lot more up her sleeve than we first thought, and hapless Jeff is about to learn just how intense this precocious girl can be.
For the first hour, Hard Candy is as intense and uncompromising an experience as you are likely to have at the movies. With an incredibly deft hand, Slade ratchets up the suspense until the film reaches a climax: a nasty little procedure that is a tour de force of editing and sound design.
After that, things lose steam but hardly fall apart. The script offers a few more thrills but never achieves the visceral power of its dramatic centerpiece. While the final twist is interesting, the accumulation of implausible events eventually takes its toll.
Hard Candy focuses on the leads' cat-and-mouse conversations, as Hayley and Jeff try to peel away each other's masks. Both characters are so ruthless we become ambivalent about who deserves our sympathy. Hayley's true motives are never revealed, and she takes such sadistic glee in tormenting Jeff that we begin to wonder who the real sociopath is. Though Jeff is revealed to be both wretched and manipulative, his guilt in the worst of crimes is never really determined. Slade and company are much more interested in confrontation than intention.
As Jeff, Wilson is so likable and desperate it's difficult not to sympathize with his plight as we hope against hope that he's innocent of Hayley's accusations. Page, on the other hand, is simply astonishing. Never once do we doubt this young girl's fiendish intelligence and what she's capable of doing. She dominates every scene she's in and actually elevates Hard Candy's most sensationalistic moments into something credible.
In many ways, Hard Candy is the perfect example of how the limitations of low-budget indie filmmaking can force a director to deliver work that is lean, mean and well-crafted. Still, given that the majority of the film focuses on two characters in a single setting, it runs about 15 minutes too long. While its characters reach their emotional and psychological climax before the film actually ends, their ghastly behavior will stick with you well after the final credits.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to email@example.com.