Hard Candy represents a milestone of sorts: it’s possibly the first Sundanceploitation film, an attempt to render the torture-revenge sensationalism of I Spit On Your Grave and Audition accessible to the Broken Flowers set. As such, it’s a miserable failure. It’ll no doubt gain buzz from a prolonged castration sequence in which 14-year-old girl Hayley (Ellen Page) performs amateur surgery on her deserving victim, an early-30s photographer/pedophile, but the film built around it is, unfortunately, little more than a vacuous stunt.
Handsome, smooth-talking Jeff (Patrick Wilson) lures hoodie-clad Hayley through the internet, with plans to take things further at his Sharper Image bachelor pad — the precocious girl then, only halfway into the first reel, drugs him, ties him up and violently confronts him with his criminal behavior. Without any dramatic build-up or driving moral tension the ensuing mind games and physical brutalities unfold as a series of whiny face-offs in handheld earthquakes, over-lit glamour close-ups, and New York Times magazine primary color compositions, these techniques providing the exact opposite of a desperately needed grotesque satire of upscale decor. Any leftovers of delicious derangement are wasted by Page’s character, whose perfectly timed sarcastic barbs come across as the inventions of a smug screenwriter (Brian Nelson) rather than the taunts of a budding psychopath.
Page has already gathered praise, but don’t be fooled — she’s just a solid deliverer of false notes. That the film she stars in can’t even go balls-out (I couldn’t resist) for its centerpiece is the most telling sign that this moralistic bore doesn’t have the imagination to really roll in the muck. Hard Candy may not be the worst film of this still young year, but it’s by far the most cowardly.