Hard Candy
directed by David Slade
(Lions Gate, 2005)

From the second you see its cubist credits appear, you know Hard Candy is not going to be your usual Hollywood fare. In fact, it doesn't even feel like your usual independent fare, assuming there is such a thing. Instead, Hard Candy takes us in a direction few filmmakers have ever chosen to go, and with good reason.

It all starts un-innocently enough with the sounds of furious typing: an Internet interchange between Lensman319 and Thonggrrrl, a.k.a. Jeff Kohlver (Patrick Wilson) and Haley Stark (Ellen Page), respectively.

One line leads to another, and it isn't long before the two typists, ages 32 and 14, have agreed to meet at a coffee shop named Nighthawks, which, while being the potential meeting place of possible pedophiles, does have the good taste to use Edward Hopper's famous painting of the same name on its T-shirts. Soon one latte leads to another and it isn't long before Kohlver is buying said T-shirt for Stark and Stark is inviting herself over to Kohlver's rather expensive and aesthetically pleasing digs in the southern California hills -- this despite the fact that Kohlver makes it very clear he has to wait four years until he's able to enjoy Stark's company in all senses of the word.

No matter. Stark is insistent, Kohlver indulges her and before long they've entered the house (possibly the cleanest bachelor pad on record), looked at Kohlver's photographs (he's a professional photographer, his walls lined with model shoots) and entered into a face-off worthy of any Stanley Cup game. For it's Stark, not Kohlver, who mixes the drinks, and it's Kohlver, not Stark, who passes out. And it isn't long before director David Slade and screenwriter Brian Nelson have you wondering which of these two really is the more dangerous one, and why.

Hard Candy is not an easy film to watch, in part because of the subject matter and in part because of the claustrophobic style in which Slade chooses to present it. Much of the cinematography is simply cutting back and forth between close-ups -- medium to extreme -- of Kohlver and Stark. There are very few roles in the film -- really only one speaking part beyond Wilson's and Page's, that of a clueless neighbor (Sandra Oh) who bumbles her way into the face-off.

That means the camera is on Wilson or Page or both for nearly all of the film's 103 minutes, a daunting amount of camera time. Fortunately, both Wilson (Raoul in Phantom of the Opera and Michael in Running with Scissors) and Page (a Canadian-born actress with nearly 10 years' experience in TV and movies, most recently as Kitty Pryde in X-Men: The Last Stand) are up to the task.

It's also a challenge for cinematographer Jo Willems, who must make the most of a precious few sets. Any doubts about his abilities disappear with his shot of Stark appearing on the roof as Kohlver's neighbor trims her flowers in the yard next door. It's an image that tells you something unexpected is about to happen, but offers no clue as to what's to come.

Most of all, there's the challenge of keeping up an ongoing conversation between two people for nearly two hours. That requires a deft ear for dialogue; fortunately Nelson, who wrote many of the screenplays for the series So Weird, has one. Good lines abound, though few are better than "Nothing's yours when you invite a teenager into your home" -- delivered as Stark begins reading a stack of love letters to a former girlfriend she finds in Kohlver's house.

More importantly, however, the dialogue leads somewhere. And it soon becomes apparent that neither Kohlver nor Stark is being honest about what they want -- and that both have much to hide.

Granted, there are times when Hard Candy seems about to go off the deep end -- to turn into a slasher or sexploitation film. It's a psychological film with the accent on psycho, one that makes Monster look like a gaudy Broadway musical.

It's not always believable and not always tasteful. But it always seems to rescue itself at the last second, and in the end it tells a story that would be hard to tell any other way. For this it won Best Film and Best Screenplay awards at the Sitges-Catalonian Film Festival and was nominated as Best Foreign Independent Film in the British Independent Film Awards.

So let the face-off begin.

review by
Miles O'Dometer

3 March 2007

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I haven't seen Juno yet, but I've heard the buzz about Ellen Page. I saw this in Blockbuster and said, what the hey. I had heard it was an edgy film. Edgy I like.

Nothing I had heard prepared me for this. I was totally taken off guard. I love when movies go in a direction when you cannot figure what will happen next. This does.

A 14-year-old girl hooks up online with a 32-year-old photographer who may or may not be a pedophile. The whole movie is about the confrontation in his swanky home/studio, most of the time during which she keeps him tied up and helpless.

I honestly did not know where this movie was going. Is she some kind of twisted vigilante? Is he an honest guy who just happens to make a living shooting young models?

The tension that develops while you, the audience, are trying to sort out certain clues that for a while favor one side, then the other, are riveting. He's tied down and helpless, she's wielding sharp weapons ... what to believe? Is she nuts? Is he a dangerous pervert?

The two characters and their interaction are almost the entire movie. While I credit Patrick Wilson's great performance as a man trying to save his own life by talking his way out of her murderous determination, Ellen Page is astonishing. She lets you into her head -- as a woman on a mission to avenge pedophile victims, even though she's a very young teenager -- in a way rarely seen. Her face is mesmerizing.

Critics of this movie are right on a certain level. How could a 14-year-old girl possess this level of sophistication? How could an adult male allow himself to fall victim so easily? Suspension of disbelief is important here for the movie to work.

Yet, Hard Candy delivers. Movies are to be judged on how you, the audience, responds. You will respond to this movie. It reminded me a bit of Mamet's Oleanna, another male-female confrontation movie in which violence is a central element.

Bottom line: the ruthlessness of Ellen Page's character is so profoundly shown that it all works. She is a force to be reckoned with. I can't wait to see what she does after Juno. Go Ellen!

review by
Dave Sturm

10 March 2012

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