Despite a successful international festival run that saw the film take home Best Film and Best Screenplay awards at Sitges - which means many smarter people than I disagree with me on this - I confess to finding Hard Candy thoroughly mediocre. Not bad enough to hate nor good enough to get excited over it's just kind of there.
As anyone who has seen the trailers or the posters for the film is already aware Hard Candy is a sort of retelling and reversal of the Little Red Riding Hood story with fourteen year old Haley as the solitary girl and thirty two year old fashion photographer Jeff as the wolf. But what happens when the tables are turned and the wolf is the hunted?
Having chatted online for several weeks Jeff and Hayley - who posts online as 'Thonggrrrl' - agree to meet at a local coffee shop. Hayley is clearly besotted with this older man, drunk on his attention and desperate to please. And while Jeff is careful not to cross any lines his interest in Haley and positive responses to her flirtation are more than a little creepy. But when Haley convince Jeff to take her back to his place the tables are quickly turned. Jeff is drugged, bound, and subjected to physical and psychological torture by the seriously unhinged young girl.
Hard Candy is gifed with a fascinating premise, one both topical and easily recognized: the presence of sexual predators in the darker corners of the internet. It's a topic ripe with potent story possibilities and one fully deserving of a quality treatment on film but, unfortunately, Hard Candy stops short of living up to its premise.
While I found the script unconvincing - this is cleary a fourteen year old girl as written by a significantly older man - and didn't find the young lead particularly up to her role - to say nothing of the physical impossibility of much that she does - the key problem lies in the way the characters are presented. This is a story about pedophilia which portrays the pedophile in a much more sympathetic light than his captor for the vast majority of the film. Hayley is so far over the top, so seriously and obviously ill that just about anyone would appear in a positive light next to her, and Jeff does just that throughout. This is a serious problem. As much as it is a simple adrenalin kicker, Hard Candy is also meant to be a message film, a morality play, but it is one that undercuts its own footing early and often. What should play as righteous indignation and justice instead comes across as little more than sadism on Hayley's part and while that may not make Jeff's behavior any more acceptable it certainly makes it hard to have any sort of rooting interest in his captor.
Again, Hard Candy is not a horrible film but I cannot help but think that director David Slade just missed making a great one, and that simple fact makes it enormously disappointing.