Our household is in the usual movie-viewing mad scramble that happens around the end of the year, striving to catch up with all of the titles we missed that could be a factor at the Academy Awards and in our personal “best of” lists. But we still have time (and, truth be told, a sense of obligation) to engage with the pop culture sparkler of the moment, which meant dutifully manipulating a streaming service’s slickly constructed interface to compel a fictional character to tug on his earlobe (or at least fretfully resist that particular command). So with a hit tip to the flawed feat Black Mirror: Bandersnatch and its director, David Slade, I’ll today unearth my review of the Hard Candy. It was Slade’s first feature, which might not have aged into the #MeToo era particularly well because of some of the flaws identified below. In truth, it’s possible its basic premise reverberates me strongly these days. What I am certain of is that it established — one year ahead of Juno — that Ellen Page has wizardly acting skills when provided with material that’s anywhere near worthy of her.
Hard Candy begins with an online conversation between a professional photographer in his thirties and a fourteen-year-old girl. They flirt, joke, and agree to meet at a local coffee shop. That feeling of dread you have is well-founded.
That’s all I’ll reveal about the plot, despite the fact the the progression of the story has been given away in most reviews and even the film’s trailer offers some clear indicators of otherwise unexpected turns. There’s a clear intent in the film’s construction to maximize the impact of certain revelations, not in the manner of those filmmakers that have made yelling “gotcha” their stock in trade, but instead to emphasize the danger of truths withheld. These characters reveal themselves to each other slowly, reluctantly, painfully, and we in the audience take the journey with them, ready or not.
The film is largely a duet, an exercise in audacious acting performed in tandem. In that regard, it’s a smashing success. The photographer is played by Patrick Wilson, who the numerous musical devotees who peruse this sliver of the Web may know from a slightly more foppish role. Wilson’s task here is a combination of reaction and endurance. He digs deep and claws his way out, but there are built-in limits to the breadth he can bring to his character. For the broader range, there’s Ellen Page as the younger of the two principals. The bulk of the film rests on her tiny shoulders, and she carries it with a tenacious creativity that seems to announce the emergence of a ferocious talent. It will be very strange indeed to see her in her next role, which is very different and, presumably, far less demanding.
The film itself burns with a breathless edginess. It doesn’t just push buttons, it smashes its fist right into the control panel. First-time feature director David Slade holds it all together expertly, especially since the screenplay, credited to Brian Nelson, grows more and more dependent on familiar thriller contrivances as it goes on. Of particular cause for complaint is that word-processed crutch of a character blessed with implausible foresight in lining up the proverbial dominoes that will tumble towards the denouement.
Finally, it should be noted that it’s a bit of a disappointment that the film itself finally seemingly has so little to say about the provocative situation that sets the story in motion. There are moments, especially early on, when some pointed observations about children pretending to be sophisticated, sexual beings and the adults that will aggressively encourage and exploit that behavior. When the proverbial noose tightens and the film starts to go for antagonized jumps rather than woozy worries, it still provokes a palpable reaction, but some of the impact is lost.