Hard Candy is, in the way of films like There Will Be Blood, something more than a mere quip of cinema. It's more of a life force--a series of heightened perceptions filled with fear and a cold sense of intrusion. Are we watching something we shouldn't be watching? Of course, it's the kind of scene work that makes an audience feel unwelcome, yet it screams a message, just screams it in our faces. PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT: Don't troll for underage tram on the internet. You might find yourself sipping screwdrivers ala GHB one minute and then waking up duct-taped to a desk chair the next.
But it's not the GHB or the duct tape that draw the fear in Hard Candy; it's the acting. Ellen Page brings a certain level of sophistication to fourteen year old Hayley Stark, worm on a hook for internet sex preds, and she leaves us both wanting and shrinking away in disgust at the same time. Patrick Wilson plays the unsuspecting Jeff Kohlver with such unsurmountable precision, that one cannot, at first, tell whether or not his intentions truly are to violate the young Miss Stark. He thinks she's older. She looks older, acts older, and everything about Jeff Kohlver seems and feels sincere. Conversation borders too casual at times, almost creepily insignificant as the two throw around their interests and their witty oddities like tennis balls, until finally Hayley starts mixing drinks, and then things take a turn for the batty.
It turns out that Jeff's been up to something shifty, and it all has to do with a missing teenage girl whose face has been plastered to every wall in town. Hayley thinks she has the answer, and at some points we can't help but believe her. Perhaps she's right. I won't tell you how things wrap up, but even if I did, I'm not sure it would matter. Hard Candy is a film all about the rising action. The climaxes are copious, often misleading. They come wedged between masterful bouts of suspense, and Hard Candy becomes a nightmarish fairy tale. It becomes apparent how secluded Hayley and Jeff have become, how one visit from a neighbor can jeopardize it all, how sweet retribution comes with a price, how the most satisfying endings are often the most sinister, and how things like regret, remorse, total exposure can drive human beings to commit the unthinkable.
Ellen Page invokes nothing of Juno MacGuff in her turn as Hayley Stark. As Juno, Page is rough and unimpressed, hardened but jaded and endlessly accepting. As Stark, she is tireless and shrill, cold and unhinged but with a calm understanding of everything that human beings are capable of. While "Juno" will have gained Page commercial success, Hard Candy established, long before the days of Paulie Bleeker, that she is ready, raw and talented, here to take chances, the embodiment of what it takes to succeed in young Hollywood today. I look forward to following her career.