If you haven't read about the controversial premise of Hard Candy, the first 20 minutes will probably come off as rather shocking. Even so, the surprise gives way to weariness, since writer Brian Nelson and director David Slade don't go any deeper than their superficially daring concept, and the outrageous events of the film ultimately end up relatively meaningless.
It starts with a relatively innocent meeting between precocious 14-year-old Hayley (Ellen Page) and photographer Jeff (Patrick Wilson), who's almost 20 years older. They've been flirting online and meet in a coffee shop, and although the situation is questionable, Jeff seems like a responsible guy, noting that he has to wait four years before he and Hayley can do anything.
She pushes, though, and they end up at his house, and that's when things take a turn: Hayley drugs Jeff, ties him up and accuses him of abducting and possibly murdering a local girl. The rest of the film is a cat-and-mouse game between the two, as Nelson and Slade toy with our expectations about who exactly the bad guy is.
There are some squirm-inducing moments, mostly related to Hayley's treatment of Jeff's nether regions, but for a film tackling such an explosive issue, Hard Candy never gets below the surface and spends most of its time dealing with standard thriller clichés. Page is mesmerizing, though, and makes Hayley's dance on the edge of sociopathy alternately intoxicating and disturbing. Still, for all of the bitter and jaded speeches Nelson gives her, she never says anything of substance about sexual power dynamics or even about vengeance. We never learn much about Hayley or Jeff, which might be forgivable if the movie made a broader point. Instead, it's just cheap exploitation, teasing around a serious issue and then, disappointingly, running from it.