Hard Candy, 104 mins, rated R18+, opening in cinemas on 13 July 2006.

(This review originally appeared in the July 2006 issue of the NSW Law Society Journal).


Hayley Stark is 14 years old. She is fooling around on the internet, instant message chatting with a stranger. After some teasing banter they agree to meet IRL (in real life) at a coffee shop. The stranger is Jeff, 32, a successful, attractive photographer. After more suggestive chatting, Hayley (who wears a red-hooded jacket) goes home with Jeff, mixes the cocktails, and then…

Hard Candy is a tough little movie. It is also schizophrenic. Is it a serious exploration of the guilt or innocence of an alleged pedophile? Or is it a glorified vigilante film with an added slice of sadomasochism, exploiting its young female lead in the same way as a pedophile might? According to producer David Higgins, Hard Candy is based on a real life cases in Japan, where schoolgirls turned the tables on older men searching the internet for under-age girls.

The film is essentially a two-hander with a couple of scenes shot externally. Most of it consists of a dialogue between Hayley and Jeff – in fact more of a cross-examination – back and forth between the two. Who is the predator and who is the prey? Our sympathies bounce to and fro.

Because of this structure, the film depends heavily on the performances of the two leading players. Luckily they are up to the task. Hayley is played by Ellen Page, 17 when she made the film, and almost unknown outside her native Canada. She handles her complex role superbly. We believe she is only 14, even as we marvel at her intelligence and articulacy. It is a bravura turn, and we will hear more of Page in the future.

Patrick Wilson (Angels in America, Nichols, 2003 and Phantom of the Opera, Schumacher, 2004) is also excellent in the tricky role of Jeff. He gains our sympathies at times, and leaves us guessing until the end: is he a pedophile or is it all a terrible mistake?

The script, by esteemed playwright Brian Nelson, is often clever, but sometimes a bit too clever. Nelson seems to be trying for something like the dialogue of Mike Leigh’s Naked (1993), which featured David Thewlis as the most articulate and intellectual existential anti-hero imaginable. But the effect in Hard Candy is often try-hard. There are too many knowing Hollywood references: to Jean Seberg, Jodie Foster, and even an egregious reference to Roman Polanski (whose film of Ariel Dorfman’s play Death and the Maiden, this film resembles). And for all its superficial wit, there are no real insights to be had.

The first 40 minutes or so of Hard Candy are quite riveting, but at times Nelson’s playwright past is too evident, and it takes the considerable ingenuity of first-time feature director David Slade to distract us from the rather contrived set-up. The film makers’ other mistake is to go on too long. I rarely criticise a film for its length, but here the characters reach an emotional and psychological climax long before the film ends. The rest is mainly repetition and elaboration.

The film is helped by its very striking production, set, and sound design, and its cinematography. Colour and music are used to signify each of the main characters and to underscore their emotional states. The opening credits, too, are very striking – Mondrianesque black, white and red squares signal something very stylish to come.

But for me, all that skill and style can’t disguise the deeply manipulative core of Hard Candy. The film makers could be accused of doing exactly what Hayley accuses Jeff of doing: using and abusing a young girl for their own (and our) entertainment. It’s no co-incidence, in my opinion, that the writer, director and the producers are all male. But is this just a contrived and implausible male fantasy, designed to merely to titillate us, indulge our fantasies, and then shock us? (There is one jaw-dropping sequence involving an ice-pack and a scalpel.) Or is it a stylish and well-constructed discussion of pedophilia and how to deal with pedophiles?

You be the judge. But be warned. Either way, Hard Candy will make you squirm.