Hard Candy

Reviewed By Lybarger
Posted 04/24/06 03:08:26

"Not Hard Enough"
3 stars (Average)

Because of its tricky subject matter and a pair of stellar performances, it’s tempting to give “Hard Candy” more credit than it’s entitled to.

It takes a lot of chutzpah to make a flick involving pedophilia that doesn’t play like it was intended either as a Lifetime movie of the week or an exercise in kiddy porn. Sadly, “Hard Candy” starts of provocatively only to slowly develop into a disappointing tease.

What makes “Hard Candy” initially intriguing is that the film quickly defies our expectations almost as soon as it sets them up. The movie begins with a chat room conversation between someone who claims to be a professional photographer and another person claiming to be a teenage girl.

When the two meet something seems off right away. It turns out that Jeff (Patrick Wilson, “Angels in America”) is indeed a successful fashion photographer and seems too suave and handsome to be hiding behind a keyboard to meet underage women. With his knowledge of pop culture and easy charm, it seems odd that he’d be doing what he’s doing.

Haley (Ellen Page) takes in Jeff’s lines with a wide-eyed glory, but at times she seems a little too sharp to be flirting with a potential sexual predator.

If Jeff has any designs on Haley, they won’t be fulfilled because he wakes up to discover that she’s tied him to a chair and has an answer to every line he can think of. She’s been waiting for this moment and won’t stop until he’s been taught a lesson.

All of this happens about 20 minutes into the movie, and afterward music video director David Slade and playwright-screenwriter Brian Nelson don’t seem to have any idea where to stop.

Initially there is a lot of tension because we don’t know whether Haley is an avenging angel or a sadistic monster. With some of the razor sharp dialogue that Nelson gives her, you’d be inclined to think the latter. Jeff, flawed as he is, could be still be taking a punishment meant for someone more depraved than he is.

Leaving these questions unanswered briefly keeps “Hard Candy” from descending into a conventional slasher movie mentality. But later Slade and Nelson cop out and saddle the story with a pat conclusion that undermines all they’ve accomplished. “Hard Candy” is both more fun and more squeamish when we as the audience are forced to make up our own minds about the characters. Once we know their secrets, the movie isn’t as interesting.

“Hard Candy” often feels like a filmed play. There are only five on-screen roles (the film’s only “name” performer Sandra Oh makes only fleeting, negligible cameo), and after a while Nelson’s monologues, which are often clever, seem more like window dressing than essential components.

To his credit, Slade does come up with some fascinating visuals. “Hard Candy” may be set primarily in Jeff’s sterile, austere home, but the gaudy colors and relentless close-ups make the film disorienting and appropriately uncomfortable. I also have to give Nelson and Slade credit for making a film about sexual predators that features little violence and minimal skin.

If Nelson and Slade had kept up this approach throughout, “Hard Candy” could have tied knots in its viewers’ stomachs for years to come. As it stands, it provides little that a bottle of Pepto Bismal couldn’t fix.

© Copyright HBS Entertainment, Inc.