In the special features of the DVD of the thriller Hard Candy, the film's producer mentions that viewers have told him that his flick – a tight, commercially-suave suspense film that is part Rope, part torture porn, part cloying issue pic, spiced heavily with the "girls kick ass" meme that flavors so many current chick-friendly action and horror flicks – will be shown in feminist studies classes of the future.
I suggest, instead, that it be shown in filmmaking classes as a sort of "indie flick success for dummies" primer. The visual look of the flick alone is a master class on doing more with less. In an era were "indie" has become nearly synonymous with a shaking, digital hand-cam post-Blair Witch aesthetic, Hard Candy represents something like a lavish riot of technique and polish. Shot for less than a million dollars, mostly on a single set, Hard Candy has a slick, ruthlessly stylish, pro-perfect sheen that could easily be mistaken for the work of Tony Scott of Michael Mann. It is a real testament to the progress to filmmaking tech, and the technical laziness of many indie filmmakers, that something so visually competent can be made on such a tiny budget. It is somewhat like a garage band vanishing into their basement with an unfinished room full of off-the-shelf equipment and emerging with something like Pet Sounds.
Not to beat this dead horse – but this is a blog, so the point is to obsessively flog my particular deceased hobby horses, right? – but digital filmmaking and the ever dropping cost of widely available post-production equipment were, we were told, supposed to democratize filmmaking. For the most part, this was a wishful thinking. A short of shaky-cam pseudo-realist look became the common vernacular of independent filmmaking. This visual vocab and syntax was easily aped by mainstream studios – I site Joel Schumacher's Dogme-style Tigerland (when the dude behind Batman and Robin is lifting from dude who made Breaking the Waves, the concept of aesthetic integrity needs to be put to pasture) – but the traffic was all one way. The big guys could rip off the little guys, but the little guys couldn't rip off the major players. Hard Candy, whatever its flaws and problems might be, should be remembered as a sort of turning point. This flicks represents the democratization of filmmaking. If you can buy a car, you can afford the tools to make a polished, pro-grade film.
Still, the master class doesn't end there. It seems the plot of the film was approached with the same meticulous, commercial-hook care. Inspired, the producer claims, by news stories about gangs of Japanese girls who would lure cyber-molesters into muggings, the plot of Hard Candy involves an online pedophile who brings home a fourteen year old girl that turns the tables on him and assumes the role of predator. It is "controversial" in concept alone. The plot summary hits a ton of media-friendly hot buttons, from childhood sexuality to Internet perversion; but the film knows that the book office buck is in the threat and not the actual delivery. The pedo-sleaze is played with squirm inducing queasiness from the first scene and the avenging teen shows less flesh than one sees in the music videos of any of a dozen or so interchangeable post-Brittany underage blue-eyed R&B lolitas. Furthermore, the plot, once it gets underway in earnest, is a relentless thrashing of the evil kiddie molester – ensuring that even the densest audience members couldn't mistake the viewpoint of the filmmakers. If there's any exploitation going on in the flick, it is a clever and perhaps cynical manipulation of a media that can be relied upon to freak out over anything hinting at teenage female sexuality and drive up your ticket sales.
Speaking of teenagers, the female lead is amazingly well-played by Ellen Page, who popped up in the third X-Man flick as Kitty Pryde. Ellen, who probably had a blast playing her scene-stealing role, does such a great job that it makes you completely forget how essentially absurd her character is. Like some Buffy-by-way-of-Hostel, her brutally clever character is less a human than a giant plot device created to punish the chat room child stalker. She seems to have planned for every contingency, is always one-step ahead of her adult victim, cracks safes, performs surgeries, and so on. Basically, the filmmakers so want her to win the central conflict that it is as if she and her victim live in a world where the gods are clearly and actively on her side. In the hands of a less interesting and capable actress, the role would be unconvincing and laughable. She pulls it of with real skill. Weirdly, she ends up the abused in the upcoming An American Crime where she'll be playing Silva Likens. Guess she's Hollywood's go to girl whenever they need an under-aged chick for their torture themed flicks. (Sweetie, talk to your agent. Is this really what you want?)
Hard Candy is a sheep in wolf's clothing. It is a solid, remarkably efficient thriller, accented with hints of buzz-inducing controversy. Ultimately, though, these controversial themes are just window dressing. The film is skilled rather than thoughtful, exciting rather than introspective, and entertaining rather than disturbing. Candy's a nice little treat for fans of quirky thrillers, but its workman-like professionalism prevents it from treading more dangerous territory. Using the infamously unpredictable Irish State and Public Buildings Movie Rating System, I'm giving Hard Candy the Under Secretary's Lodge. It isn't the Chief Secretary's Lodge, but it didn't really didn't ever really intend to be.