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Hard Candy (10/10)

by Tony Medley

There have been some movies that were mostly all talk. “Becket” (1964) was one. Of course it was talk between Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole. But it was talk, nonetheless. There were some horses. Someone (Becket) got killed. But it was mostly talk. “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” (1966) was all talk with no horses. Richard Burton again, with Elizabeth Taylor. Both films were highly entertaining. But, by and large, movies that consist mostly of talk are generally pretty much of a bore and waste the capabilities of the medium.

“Hard Candy” is basically all talk, but it is in the mold of “Becket” and “Virginia Woolf,” because it is mesmerizing. 14 year-old Hayley Stark (Ellen Page, who was 17 years-old when the movie was shot) gets acquainted with 32 year-old photographer Jeff Kohlver (Patrick Wilson) online and, after some flirting, meets him at a local coffee shop. They have some sharp conversation. She is very cute and precocious. He, I guess, is hot. He needs a shave like most young leading men today. They seem to hit it off, and he invites her back to his apartment where they have more conversation. The adult-like relationship between a grown man and a girl barely into her teens is uncomfortable.

At this point, approximately 15 minutes into the 99 minute movie, it’s talk and not overly compelling. There is some tension because you are pretty certain that Jeff has ulterior motives. I mean, what is there about a 14 year-old girl that could interest a normal 32 year-old man except perversion? Clearly, something bad is about to happen here. We can see that Jeff has a hidden agenda. But what about Hayley?

From that point on, this is a film that surprises you and keeps you on the edge of your seat. It’s as good a “psychological thriller” as you could hope to see. There are some scenes that will make you squirm, even though there is nothing graphic. It’s all just talk. Just Jeff and Hayley. But what talk! Tension mounts with every scene.

Often music is used to remind the audience that a movie is scary and tense or to warn the viewer that something is about to happen. This film has no background music. None is needed. The tension is created by the acting and the dialogue and the direction. Because it’s all talk, the entire film hinges on how Page and Wilson execute their roles. With apologies to Carly Simon, I can’t imagine anybody doing it better.

“Hard Candy” is based on real-life occurrences in Japan, which came to the attention of producer David Higgins, who asked Los Angeles stage writer-director Brian Nelson to write a script. Because Nelson writes for the stage, it is staged like a play. In his feature film debut, director David Slade, a music video director, recognized that the play-like staging needed no alteration to make it into a film, because the script is so taut and convincing. He directs with a deft, intuitive feeling for the mood. He says that he used the color palette, the tone and the density, as almost a third character, “it was going to do a lot of storytelling when very little was being said and very little was being done.” Enhanced by the lack of music, it establishes itself as a one-of-a-kind thriller.

Unlike most movies, this was shot in sequence, except for the opening coffee shop scenes, and in only 18 days. There were no stunt doubles. Even though you suspect that Jeff is an ephobophile (let’s clear something up; a pedophile is someone who is sexually attracted to a prepubescent child; an ephobophile is someone attracted to a postpubescent youth) and that Hayley is a victim, appearances are so deceiving that you’re never sure who is good and who is bad and for whom you should be feeling sympathy. My guest was a woman who sympathized with Jeff. I sympathized with Hayley, although I wavered back and forth, as I’m sure my guest did.

Wilson does a wonderful job as the photographer/ephebophile. But the key to the film is Page. Slade tested between 250 and 300 young actresses before he saw a video of Canadian actress Page. “It was a terrible quality MPEG,” he says. “Ellen had recently shaved her head for a role, so for all intents and purposes I was looking at this little boy doing this reading without any direction at all. Yet she was head and shoulders above everybody else. She was just raw ability, and very passionate and articulate; she emotionally believed the character.” Page is so good that if she doesn’t get an Oscar nomination, something’s wrong (well, after the last three or four years of Oscar we know something’s wrong, don’t we?). It’s stunning to see this young actress mesmerize the audience with her performance. In fact, I’d give this film at least five nominations. In addition to best actress, Wilson for best actor, Slade for best director, Nelson for best original script and best picture.

I’m a critic, not a reviewer. I’m paid to criticize, not to synopsize the story (thereby ruining it for the reader). There are a few plot holes, but that’s to be expected; this is a movie, after all. Even so, I can’t think of anything to criticize in this movie.

April 5, 2006