Hard Candy

on April 14, 2006 by Annlee Ellingson
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It doesn't begin innocently: Fourteen-year-old Hayley (Ellen Page) agrees to meet Jeff (Patrick Wilson), the 30-something fashion photographer she's been IMing online, for a cup of coffee at a local diner. Their attraction is forbidden but immediate. Soon they're back at his place, drinking screwdrivers and engaging in an impromptu photo shoot. But one thing doesn't lead to another -- it leads to something else, as Hayley demands Jeff take responsibility for his intentions and, we later find, unspeakable past actions.

Director David Slade, who cut his teeth in music videos and commercials, reaches deep into his bag of visual tricks, employing fast- and slow-motion, time-lapse and distorted cinematography. By far his favorite technique, however, is the extreme close-ups of faces, lips, eyes. Unfortunately, what at first informs the instantaneous intimacy of this couple ultimately gives the viewer little sense of their environment. The much-talked-about photographs on Jeff's walls are never plainly seen. It's a fine line the filmmakers are walking here: How can one make an anti-child pornography film if there's child pornography in it? At the same time, this choice of not showing them fuels the sense of mystery of the overall piece -- are they innocent pictures, as Jeff claims, or exploitive, as Hayley sees them? Is she the victim, or is he?

A quintessential two-character drama in the confined space of Jeff's modernist home in the Hollywood Hills -- writer Brian Nelson's stage experience is clearly on display -- "Hard Candy," like Mamet's "Olenna," challenges viewers' loyalties at every turn. Sympathy for her shifts to empathy for him as layers of truth peel away. The scenario at play here -- reportedly based on real-life attacks on suspected pedophiles by schoolgirls in Japan -- is an intriguing one, but as executed ultimately stretches plausibility, and the self-realization the film mocks midway through returns in the final act, only this time it's sincere. However, the audience isn't buying it. Starring Patrick Wilson and Ellen Page. Directed by David Slade. Written by Brian Nelson. Produced by Richard Hutton, Michael Caldwell and David W. Higgins. A Lionsgate release. Psychological thriller. Rated R for disturbing violent and aberrant sexual content involving a teen and for language. Running time: 103 min

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