Hard Candy

(2006) *** R
103 min. Lions Gate Films. Cast: Ellen Page, Patrick Wilson, Sandra Oh, Jennifer Holmes, Gilbert John.

Though hardly a deep discourse on social issues—and only as feminist as it is criminally insane—David Slade's edgy exploitation film Hard Candy is a skillful button-pusher. Screenwriter Brian Nelson plausibly develops mind games within the context of a dangerous flirtation between a sexual predator and an underage girl, and Slade's tightly framed direction keeps the focus on two actors up to the tasks of this slick, sick thriller.

Thirty-two-year-old photographer Jeff (Patrick Wilson of The Phantom of the Opera) appears to be a serial pedophile and even, perhaps, a killer. Fourteen-year-old Hayley (seventeen-year-old newcomer Ellen Page) comes on innocently, but has a hidden agenda. For three weeks, the two have corresponded by chat-room instant messages (him: Lensman319; her: Thonggrrrl14), but when they meet—first in a local café and then in Jeff's Hollywood Hills home—deep-seated issues emerge from both players.

Nelson and Slade name-check all the requisite themes: pedophilia, voyeurism ("Cameras, computers—they let you hide," scolds Hayley), and social hypocrisy (Hayley muses, "Didn't Roman Polanski just win an Oscar?"). Because this is contemporary popular culture, vigilantism remains cause for celebration: though audiences may sympathize with both characters from time to time, it's seldom unclear where Slade is steering our loyalty. Neither character can be redeemed for his or her sins, so audiences may have some difficulty taking sides, but they won't be bored as they contemplate what may happen next.

As outlying evidence that style will trump substance, Slade prominently credits a digital colorist in the opening titles: Jeff's nouveau apartment displays a saturated color scheme offset by the framed, black-and-white photographs of underage girls and the bright primary colors of his photographic backdrops (oh, and Slade can't resist outfitting Page in a little red riding hood). Hard Candy revolves around a gruesome (yet never graphic) interaction between the two players, but playwright Nelson's gift for penetrating dialogue successfully decorates the exploitation. As a result, Hard Candy skews just enough toward Death and the Maiden and away from Saw III.

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