Saturday 11 August 2007

Hard Candy (2005)

Saturday 11 August 2007
Director: David Slade
Writer: Brian Nelson

Cast: Ellen Page (Hayley Stark), Patrick Wilson (Jeff Kohvler), Sandra Oh (Judy Tokuda), Jennifer Holmes (Janelle Rogers) & Gilbert John (Nighthawks Clerk)

A shy 14-year-old girl meets a 32-year-old photographer she's flirted with on the internet, leading to a frightening confrontation…

British director David Slade, most famous for directing music videos for the likes of Rob Dougan ("Clubbed To Death"), Aphex Twin ("Donkey Rhubarb") and Muse ("Bliss"), makes his feature-film debut with Hard Candy, an effective little thriller with its finger firmly on the pulse of modern societal fears.

Hard Candy stars Ellen Page (X-Men III) as Hayley Stark, a shy 14-year-old schoolgirl who meets Jeff, a 32-year-old photographer, after flirting with him in an internet chat room. The film opens midway through one of their chats, with a computer screen of flirtatious text, before moving to the pair's meeting in a coffee shop…

Obviously, given the current climate in the media regarding paedophiles and sexual predators, we already fear for Hayley's safety, despite some precautions being taken and both characters seemingly well-intentioned and polite. In these early moments, you're on tenterhooks, ready for the cracks in Jeff's veneer to show up…

Eventually, Jeff takes Hayley back to his luxurious house, a fiercely modern area Jeff uses as his studio. The relationship still seems a little odd, but amiable enough, until the twist arrives. It's a minor spoiler really, but it transpires that Hayley is a far more capable, cunning and resourceful girl than we were led to believe! In no time, Jeff is drugged and tied to a chair, ready to live a nightmare scenario, as the extremely focused and intelligent Hayley brings her own brand of vigilante justice on her captured paedophile…

Written by Brian Nelson, whose credits mainly involve sci-fi shows like Lois & Clark and Earth: Final Conflict, this is a fantastic script that neatly subverts expectations throughout. At heart, Hard Candy is a simple two-hander, relying on the acting of its leads, the development of its plot and the ability of its director to keep everything focused and driven.

To say much more would ruin Hard Candy's many surprises, but suffice to say that Hayley's true nature isn't the only twist up its sleeve. The film also isn't afraid to go to some very dark areas, prodding the audience's in-built opinions on paedophilia, pornography and the internet.

Ellen Page gives a phenomenal performance here, staking her claim as the best young actress working in film today. In fact, her acting is so utterly convincing and textured that she should have won Best Actress at that year's Oscars. She's that good. As it happens, only the Austin Film Critics Association were brave enough to snub Helen Mirren (The Queen) and hand Page that particular honour.

Patrick Wilson is also superb, although as the "victim" he gets less chance to showcase his range, but he makes Jeff a believable character and one you really empathize with, particularly in the film's grizzly highlight that will cause men everywhere to cringe with sympathy! His performance bodes well for him playing the sexually-dysfunctional Daniel Dreiberg in Watchmen.

Director David Slade keeps everything under control and refuses to make the mistake most ex-music video directors fall prey to (schizophrenic editing, etc.) Instead, Slade ensures Hard Candy isn't flashy and very understated, instead focusing on getting good performances from his actors. His tight style of close-ups, slow pans, camera circling and occasionally slipping to unfocused lenses is very involving.

In summation, Hard Candy (incidentally, a term for underage children on the 'net) is exactly what low-budget cinema should be doing; using contemporary social fears to feed into beautifully-acted fictional stories. Once the film gets down to business, Hard Candy refuses to let your attention wander, although it certainly contains a few sequences that will make you squint.

This is a terrific exercise in filmmaking, containing two phenomenal performances, particularly from formidable Ellen Page, who radiates talent from every pore.

Budget: $1m (est.)
103 minutes