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Home > Culture and Society

TFT FIlm: 'Hard Candy'

22 July 2006

The word 'paedophile' inevitably sounds ugly to us, and it looks rather unlovely too. That Latinate 'ae'; it's all perverse and threatening. However, the US English version - 'pedophile', with the first syllable spat out to rhyme with 'dead' - is possibly ickier. As ghastly as both is 'Hard Candy', a film in which a sinister 14-year-old girl submits an early-thirties male photographer to a sunny afternoon's mental and physical torture. 'Lolita' it isn't, although they should probably give you a lollipop afterwards like they used to do at the doctor's.

The bogglingly precocious Hayley sets herself up online as the ideal bait for Jeff, then proceeds to play the knowing yet vulnerable kitten when they meet in a café. Having inveigled her way into his remote studio she proceeds to drug him, tie him up, interrogate him as to his paedophilic past and present, and rummage through his house for evidence. She also consults a hefty medical textbook before cheerily donning some rubber gloves and getting down to making Jeff less of a danger to other girls. Although Hayley's iciness and single-minded sadism is going to plonk her into the frankly bollocks 'bunny boiler' category for some, the clever script and Ellen Page's terrifyingly measured performance ensure she never becomes too preposterous. Still, while you can imagine legions of denial-bound Jeffs struggling with their demonic urges, it's hard to believe there are very many disturbed Hayley-esque geniuses out there.

It's a flawed film with an ending it's hard to avoid thinking of as a cop-out, but it does have an awesome psychological clout. You feel this in two ways: firstly, there's hardly any actual on-screen violence and barely a smattering of blood, but you still feel as if you've been through the horror-wringer. Secondly - yes, you *do* feel sorry for Mr Not-Unlikeable Paedo/Pedo. The claustrophobic framings of the two main characters' faces, showing every tear and drop of agonised sweat on Jeff's cheek, force the sympathy along with actor Patrick Wilson's great performance as a whole. Some of his lines (by former 'New Adventures of Superman' writer Brian Nelson, but don't let that put you off) wrench it out of you. Tied to a table and primed for castration, his screams fade at one point into a calm, awful recollection of a childhood trauma. He talks about being held over a hot stove, hearing his own tears sizzle, after being discovered pinned down by a younger girl. Hayley, predictably, is having none of it, and scoffs at his attempt to rationalise his current disordered state and appeal to her sympathies. So either we've been expertly manipulated by the filmmakers and Jeff's character, or... or we're just *sick*.

But there is a point the film raises - almost certainly by accident, as it's not as ambiguous as it would like to think it is (and thus not as controversial - sorry). There's a lot of intense discussion, mostly in the form of impassioned, sardonic speeches from Hayley, about the absolute wrongness of Jeff's attraction to young girls. 'Just because a girl knows how to imitate a woman,' she rages, 'it doesn't mean she's ready to do the things a woman does.' She's right, of course, and Jeff is a whole world of wrong in agreeing to meet her, flirting with her and allowing her to invite herself to his flat. However, what the film doesn't seem to fully address is the difference between men who are attracted to children, and men who are attracted to teenagers. Hayley, played by a young-looking 18-year-old, is a very mature-seeming 14-year-old, who does indeed know how to ape the mannerisms and come-ons of a woman. Jeff's only slightly abashed, mostly eager response to her cavortings is thoroughly unsettling, but also understandable. This isn't a bloke surreptitiously leering at a five-year-old in a summer dress - it's a bloke neglecting to observe societal constraints by lusting after a girl beneath the age of consent but approaching physical maturity. Why there isn't a different word for this particular, extremely common sexual disorder-slash-preference, we don't know, but in its absence 'Hard Candy' is a film about a paedophile, period.

This clause gets the film out of jail free, so to speak, and it's free to make a number of wrong turns that get more infuriating the more you consider them. Jeff's psychology isn't quite kept in order - since (spoiler alert) he *does* turn out to be the more-evil-than-we-thought bastard Hayley insists he is, all the heartfelt, bumbling, I'm-only-human stuff is made to look like a cheap con trick in hindsight. That would be fair enough, but it does ruin the carefully-constructed character and isn't convincing. It's clumsy. Also, Jeff's first on-screen gesture - to lewdly draw his thumb across Hayley's chocolate-laden lip and slurp the sweet stuff off himself - is a real red herring, followed as it is by a very deliberate avoidance of any physical contact at all. He seems a lot more out of his depth than she does. The first scenes are built up in a fascinating way, seeming to show a keenness to delve into the vast grey areas the subject suggests. But then there's the torture and the scuffles and the scary speeches, and slowly the intrigue as to which character is the more deluded and insane evaporates to nothing. You're left with a righteous avenger and an unconscionable deviant. Which, given how cartoon-commonplace those two roles are in film, and how hard this film tries to blur them until the last act, is a bit of a waste. But then any film that wants to be seen by more than a few fag-smelling derelicts in a back room has to have some kind of moral centre. It's just a bummer when that rolls clunkily over the rest of a daring film, smooshing it into something nicely palatable that won't keep you awake at night.

So it is a missed opportunity in a sense, but 'Hard Candy' is worth seeing for the brilliant performances, the stark, arty cinematography, and the golden opportunity to have a massive fight with whoever you see it with. And no quip about Roman Polanski in a film should go unsaluted. They did miss Bill Wyman, though.



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