Please note: This review contains SPOILERS about the plot of the movie.
(SPOILER) “Nothing’s yours when you invite a teenager into your home,” says Hayley just at the 30-minute mark of the movie Hard Candy.
Hard Candy is an American indie psychological thriller. It is the brainchild of first time producer David W. Higgins, who wanted to make a strong visual independent movie without studios’ interference. Hard Candy is also the feature film debut of British actor and director David Slade, who is known for directing artistic commercials and music videos.
Hard Candy opens with a chat room suggestive dialogue between Lensman319 and Thonggrrrl14. The audience meets Jeff, a handsome charming 32 years old corporate-work photographer, talking to teenage Hayley in a coffee shop.
“Hayley: You really just don’t look like kind of guy who needs to meet girls over the internet.
Jeff: Well, I think it’s better to meet people online first, sometimes. You get to know what they’re like inside. When you work as a photographer, you find out real quick people’s faces lie.
Hayley: Does my face lie?”
Jeff, played by Patrick Wilson, covertly flirts and invites fresh-faced innocent 14 years old pre-med Hayley to his place. The audience collectively fears for Hayley’s safety. We know where the story is leading when Jeff offers Hayley, played by Ellen Page, a drink. Jeff’s home is modern with bold colors–red and yellow, minimal furniture, and tasteful photographs of his past models–all young girls. Hayley is impressed; she removes her sweatshirt and playfully poses for Jeff to take her pictures.
Just when the audience is sufficiently worried about Haley, the audience sees Jeff drugged bound to a chair. Gradually the audience starts to wonder about Hayley. Is she a thief? Why is she doing this? (SPOILER) Higgins summarizes it in one line, “A 14 year old girl and 32 year old man meet on the internet, but she is the predator.” (1)
The audience watches an emotional power struggle between Hayley and Jeff. Hayley’s motives are unclear; probably she is not of a sound mind; probably she is fishing about Jeff. As the movie progresses the audience realizes that Hayley had targeted Jeff from the start. She had intentionally planned the escapade with Jeff when his neighbors were out.
Hard candy like a good detective mystery establishes the tools that Hayley uses to gain physical control at the beginning of the movie. It keeps the tension taunt by use of dialogues not action. Instead of suspenseful music, Hard candy amplifies the mundane sounds of breathing, heart beating, glass breaking, and table dragging to include the audience in Jeff’s home. (SPOILER) One of the most memorable sounds is the banging of Jeff’s watch on the steel table, to which he tied. The movie has only nine minutes of actual music.
Apart from tight script and sounds, movie’s tension is tauter by tight close-up shots of characters’ faces. There are close shoots of sweat and flush on Jeff’s face and purple of his hands, when he tied to the table. Slade had the set build to specifications on a sound stage. This way he was able to move or remove walls or ceiling for every camera angle.
Hard Candy has an innovative lightning technique done for the first time in an American movie. Instead of the usual technique of darkening the lights during shoots, colorist Jean-Clement Sorret brighten the walls during shoots to see characters’ expressions. During editing process, he would darken the walls. The result is a visual treat of characters’ nuances of expressions. Hard Candy is the first movie that included its colorist in the front title.
One of the reasons the movie is perfect because writer Brian Nelson was involved in the casting process and was present throughout the shooting. Nelson would modify the script or dialogues as need on the set. This movie is less about discovery of anything but about the physiological game Hayley plays with Jeff.
I think this movie is the first to have a smart teenage girl as the protagonist. Hayley is the first female protagonist who instead of being a prey is the predator. Audiences don’t know her backstory. The audience learns that she has done this before. But to how many pedophiles, we don’t know. This movie never discusses Hayley’s backstory. It lets audiences draw their own conclusion.
For a movie shoot in sequence in eighteen and half days, I find no false moments in Hard Candy. Both Page and Wilson performed their own stunts. Page adds strength with vulnerability to Hayley; Wilson somehow manages to make Jeff sympathetic.
In the end Hard Candy doesn’t feed its audience answers, instead it asks questions. (SPOILER)
“Jeff: You were coming on to me!
Hayley: Oh, come on. That’s what they always say, Jeff.
Hayley: Who? The pedophiles! “Oh, she was so sexy. She was asking for it. She was only technically a girl, she acted like a woman”. It’s just so easy to blame a kid, isn’t it? Just because a girl knows how to imitate a woman, does not mean she’s ready to do what a woman does! I mean, you’re the grown-up here. If a kid is experimenting and says something flirtatious, you ignore it, you don’t encourage it. If a kid says, “Hey, let’s make Screwdrivers!” you take the alcohol away and you don’t race them to the next drink!”
Higgins intentionally kept the production budget under one million US dollars, to stay independent and away from the control of movie studios. The script was alternatively written so it could be shoot at Higgins house, in case they didn’t get funding. Nevertheless, Hard Candy made more than seven million US dollars at the box office. It was screened first in 2005 at Sundance Film Festival.
Even though in my opinion Hayley’s backpack was too small to contain all the things it seemed to have contained, I wouldn’t change anything in Hard Candy. If you enjoy taut psychological thrillers with strong visual style, watch Hard Candy on DVD. I am sure while watching Hard Candy, you will not fidget and you will forget to eat your popcorn.
Hard Candy. Dir. David Slade. Perf. Ellen Page and Patrick Wilson. 2005. Lionsgate Home Video, 2006. DVD.
(1) Slade, David, dir. Nelson, Brian, writ. “Audio commentary with Director David Slade and Writer Brian Nelson.” Hard Candy. 2005. DVD. Lionsgate Home Video, 2006.
(2) “Creating Hard Candy.” Hard Candy. Dir. David Slade. 2005. DVD. Lionsgate Home Video, 2006.