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Tippety, tippety, tippety. Dainty fingers type on a computer keyboard and the monitor shows that someone named "thongrrrrrl" is making a date with some guy. She is coy, cloy, and sexually teasing - like very young girls and very stupid women. The guy nearly blows the date, but navigates well. The girl really wants to meet him after all.
In the next scene, set in a coffee shop bakery, we see just who the anonymous virtual friends are. Haley Stark (Ellen Page: MOUTH TO MOUTH, X-MEN: THE LAST STAND) is a 14 year old girl who looks 12 (but was actually 18 when this movie was made). She is very short, very petite, and her virtual date is in reality a tall, husky, 32 year old man. He smiles and greets her, knowing who she is before she recognizes him. As she looks up to him, vulnerable and unsure, the much older man, Jeff Kohlver (Patrick Wilson: THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA ), uses his thumb to wipe a smear of chocolate from Haley's mouth, licks it off, and makes a comment about how sexy that is.
Ugh! From this moment on I couldn't stand the guy and wanted to see him get his just desserts (A bakery! Chocolate! Desserts! HA!). As if to underline the danger, there is a flyer on the wall for a young girl who has been missing for too long. Is Haley another underaged girl walking into danger? Or is she the attacker? After all, the movie is called HARD CANDY and shows a small girl dressed like Little Red Riding Hood as bait in a huge trap.
The trap is soon sprung just after Jeff invites Haley over to his house. Jeff is a professional photographer and his walls are festooned with large photographs of underage girls in provocative clothing. Soon Haley is making them screwdrivers and Jeff doesn't mind at all that underage Haley is drinking and seemingly getting drunk.
Then, for Jeff, everything falls apart.
The far smaller Haley is incapable of overpowering Jeff physically, but Jeff, for all of his years of experience, has never encountered any girls like Haley.
Haley is in Jeff's house and in his life for a reason: she hates pedophiles. She has an agenda, same as Jeff, and the rest of the movie plays like a ping pong game, seeing who will get and retain the upper hand as the balance of power is batted back and forth.
Though small and far weaker, Haley is clever and quick as a rat, springing surprises on Jeff when he least expects it and to ever increasingly more devastating effect: bringing his strengths, bit by bit, down to her level. In one moment, when Jeff is otherwise tied up, Haley ransacks his house, looking for a reason to justify whatever it is she has planned for him, all the while torturing him both physically and mentally with her chirpy chatter.
HARD CANDY is the first theatrical release from music video director, David Slade, working off a script by television screenwriter, Brian Nelson. HARD CANDY is their calling card into thrillers and both are currently working on Steve Niles Horror Detective opus, 30 DAYS OF NIGHT. It is also a stunning debut. There are many moments when I found myself thinking that Haley went too far with her safety, thinking for sure that Slade and Nelson would sleeze into some brutal rape scene. But instead they chose the more creative route. For those inept indie clowns who are trying to out-gore or out-torture the last SAW sequel? Check out HARD CANDY so you can fully understand why you should go back to slapping down decal meat at Subway (peel it off the paper, slap it on the bread).
HARD CANDY has a true take-no-prisoners ethos running through it. An inevitable, inescapable fatal logic that can only lead to one conclusion - all others would betray the story.
Sandra Oh (LAST NIGHT, WAKING THE DEAD, THE NIGHT LISTENER) makes an appearance as the curious next door neighbor, Judy Tokuta, but her role isn't pursued. I think she is there to raise investor money.
My only problem with the movie is that Haley is often way too mature and knowledgable for her age. Intelligent and precocious doesn't begin to explain some of the things she does and says regardless of what she's been exposed to: Ask some of the forty and fifty year-olds still in therapy how they've come to terms with their childhood traumas.
Still, that's something to talk about after the movie. HARD CANDY will keep you on the edge of your seat. 4 Shriek Girls.
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