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Thank Hell for Little Girls

Hard Candy turns the tables on an online pedophile.

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However it's wrapped, Hard Candy is a tough one to swallow.
  • However it's wrapped, Hard Candy is a tough one to swallow.

The Darwinian theory that schlocksploitation must tighten its twist of the nuts with each new release will be tested strenuously for years -- or at least several weeks -- by Hard Candy. A pointedly s(l)ick cross between Oleanna and I Spit on Your Grave, thrown like raw meat to Lions Gate for $4 million at Sundance, Hard Candy depicts a 32-year-old fashion photographer with an eye for jailbait getting bound and gagged by his latest subject -- a screwdriver-and-scalpel-wielding gender-avenger who's all of 14 years old. Not to sound like Michael Medved here, but really: Isn't there a statute of limitations for the rape-revenge genre? "We can sell it as a female empowerment movie," Lions Gate's Tom Ortenberg told The Boston Globe at Sundance.

Hard Candy, however it's wrapped, is a tough one to swallow. ("For disturbing, violent, and aberrant sexual content involving a teen," the ratings board says of its generously issued R.) Hayley Stark (Ellen Page), the freckle-faced femme fatale who toys with her pedophilic prey in an online chat room before meeting him in the "RW" (that's the real world), is reading the autobiography of tormented actress Jean Seberg as well as Romeo and Juliet; her retorts, typed or uttered, are as sharp as the surgical tool she threatens to use on the photographer for "preventative maintenance." When Jeff (Patrick Wilson), the perv-turned-victim, pleads from behind tight ropes that his professional rep will be ruined if Hayley calls the cops, the young cultural critic begs to differ. "Didn't Roman Polanski just win an Oscar?"

Not for nothing does the movie put its cradle-robbing creep in the image-making biz. Hard Candy, seductively shot in hi-def DV by music-video director David Slade, contrives to wag its finger at itself -- to have its bonbon and eat it too. Right from the film's opening peep at instant sex-messaging (Jeff's handle is "lensman319," Hayley's is "thonggrrrl14"), Slade goads us to admit taking guilty pleasure, even from within a scenario as criminal as this one. Maybe Slade's first RW close-up -- of a fork slowly sliding through moist cake -- is already stepping over the line. (Or maybe that comes in the next two shots, whose insinuation of sexual appetite I can't even attempt to describe, for fear of crossing the line myself.) In any case, one thing leads to another between these inveterate flirts, and the two proceed to the shooter's Hollywood Hills bungalow, an Almodovarian setting that essentially allows Slade to blame our arousal on the pedophile's interior-decorating style. At least until the tables are turned (and probably a bit after too), Hard Candy is film noir as bright red lollipop: Its intoxicating visuals lower our defenses as effectively as the roofie that Riding Hood slips the Big Bad Wolf in his own lair.

In the spirit of Lions Gate's Hostel and The Devil's Rejects, a good half of this lurid two-hander is pure torture -- to watch, some will say -- particularly once the resourceful Hayley discovers her captive's secret stash of homemade child porn and gets to work with a hospital gurney, a bag of ice, and . . . that scalpel.

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