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Breaking teeth on ‘Hard Candy’

by Kaori Shoji

Thonggrrrl, 14, could just be the girl of Lensman’s dreams. She’s sexy, she’s witty, she’s currently reading the autobiography of Jean Seberg and making all kinds of intelligent comments. And she’s all of 14 years old.

Hard Candy Rating: (4 out of 5)

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News photo
Ellen Page (left) and Patrick Wilson in “Hard
Candy”

Director: David Slade
Running time: 103 minutes
Language: English
Opens Aug. 5, 2006

[See Japan Times movie listing]

Lensman is a 32-year-old photographer who met her in a teenage chat room and after exchanging semisexual but laced-with-cultural-references online quips, decides to take the relationship into the “RW (Real World)” — a sojourn in a downtown cafe. They talk and Thonggrrrl invites herself back to Lensman’s (he’s already more than a little giddy and enthralled) apartment. In the car park, he bends down to kiss her feet, a gesture that both underscores his creepiness and her supreme status as the desired one.

The initial scenes to U.K. indies director David Slade’s brilliant “Hard Candy” is slick with stylishness and sticky with mega-sleaze suggestiveness. And judging from the expression on Lensman’s face, the RW is panning out just fine.

As a Japanese, one would like to hit the stop button right there, jump into the screen and show Lensman a few news clippings of middle-aged guys in this country being “hunted” by young girls; lured into hotel rooms and robbed, lured into karaoke rooms and beaten up by a teenage gang and then robbed, or lured into secluded dark corners in parks, photographed while in a compromising position and blackmailed. Lensman, whose RW name is Jeff (Patrick Wilson) looks alarmingly innocent as he talks the talk to the cynical, composed Thonggrrrl (i.e. Hayley — the frighteningly talented Ellen Page), who comes off as a luscious, possibly naughty Riding Hood in a crimson sweat shirt. “I know better than to let a strange man mix my drink for me,” says Hayley when he offers refreshments. That statement alone should have alerted him to a Code Red situation but no — he smiles and asks her to do the honors. Thirty minutes later, a groggy Jeff wakes up bound and tied with his pants off while Hayley prances around with a carving knife aimed precariously at a particular body part, swearing vengeance for all his (supposed) past misdeeds conducted on underage darlings just like her. He protests his innocence, she points to one of the photographs on the wall that happen to be of a missing girl and a stash of teen porn kept in a secret box. The tables are turned and the RW has never looked so merciless, so ferocious and . . . sharp. Grrrr.

“Hard Candy” is a postfeminist study of the boy-meets-girl dynamic; with cybersex as the new sexual relationship and online chatting as the new foreplay; much of dating ethics and rituals in the RW have become increasingly obsolete if not totally meaningless. We don’t really know why Jeff (an attractive, successful professional with a snazzy bachelor pad) chooses to navigate the nether regions of underage chatrooms instead of say, meeting a model for drinks after work. And we never know for sure how much of Hayley’s accusations are on the mark, since Slade always gives Jeff the benefit of the doubt. He IS a scumbag, yes, but how guilty could he be if he’s a vicarious one, sending off salacious sweet nothings into cyberspace limbo? Jeff’s is potentially a “let him cast the first stone” situation, and besides, Hayley is the one doing all the criminal action, torturing her victim with the same, self-righteous glee glimpsed in the Abu Gharib prison vid.

The really jarring moment comes when a neighbor (played by Sandra Oh) comes knocking, ostensibly to sell her daughter’s Girl Scout cookies but more to find out what the strange noises coming from Jeff’s apartment could possibly be. The neighbor jolts Hayley’s little universe into the RW in a way that short-circuits her control panels — here after all, is a real woman with a woman’s history and is, therefore, aware of all the tricks and secrets in the Girlie Bag.

“Just because a girl can imitate a woman doesn’t mean she’s ready to do what a woman usually does,” Hayley tells Jeff, and in that single statement lies all of her vulnerability and all of her strength. She’s a GIRL and that means she can be incredibly damaged by a man but at the same time, has the power to tip that equation at any given time. Humbert Humbert had said as much 50 years ago when he took off with 12-year old Lolita — it was her inherent fragility and steeliness that so fueled his passion. Theirs was a love story, but between Hayley and Jeff, emotions remain flatlined: there’s only guilt and fear and a desperation that in the second half of the story, loses its momentum. Hayley did put Jeff on trial, but her very youth and lack of experience deprives her of conviction just when she needs it most. Like a child that suddenly loses interest in a just-bought toy, Hayley’s face registers total loss as to where to take it from there and the tight wrapper on the candy begins to tear. Exactly what flavor is exposed is open to debate.