A terrifying confection

By reversing the roles of abuser and victim, Hard Candy sheds light on the paedophile panic and fears of the mob.

Nathalie Rothschild

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Hard Candy is a psychotic thriller about the dangerous liaison between an adolescent girl and a 30-something man known to each other as Thongrrrl14 and Lensman319 in an internet chat room before they meet in the ‘RW’ – the Real World. But the twist of the Hard Candy tale is that the paedophile predator turns out to be the prey and the victim-child a teen-avenger. Meanwhile, in the real world outside that of the cinema, moral panics about paedophilia, child protection and internet security abound.

The film’s release was timely. Over the past couple of weeks there has been plenty of reaction to home secretary John Reid’s suggestion that the UK should introduce a version of Megan’s Law. This legislation would allow parents and schools access to addresses and other personal details of released child sex offenders. It seems the 14-year-old protagonist in Hard Candy is not just every paedophile’s nightmare, but also the nightmare envisioned by many of those who have warned against introducing Megan’s Law. Their warnings have not been so much about moral panics and accompanying illiberal measures, as about the possibility of the legislation leading to ‘a lynch mob law’, apparently with the risk of awakening the vigilantism that lies dormant in society (1).
The film begins with an internet chat between Thongrrrl14, whose real name is Hayley, and Lensman319, whose real name is Jeff, brilliantly played by Ellen Page and Patrick Wilson. They decide to meet up at Nighthawks, a trendy Los Angeles coffee shop. There, the to-and-fro flirtatious banter and innuendos between Hayley and Jeff continues in teasing one-liners resembling the instant messaging talk of the chatroom. Jeff, a handsome and successful photographer, entices Hayley to go back to his stylish bachelor’s pad with the promise of playing her a bootleg MP3 recording of a Goldfrapp gig. But as the story unfolds, it becomes clear that Jeff is the one who is in the dark and that Hayley has not come to his house for play or pleasure.
The shock factor of Hard Candy is hinged on our assumptions regarding the nature of power-relations between paedophiles and their victims. We do not expect a 14-year-old girl, even if she is worldly and sharp, to mentally and physically manipulate a 32-year-old man who picks up adolescents on the internet. We certainly don’t expect her to use her knowledge of surgery, which she claims to have picked up whilst sitting in on her father’s med-school lectures, and of torture, which she has read about in Amnesty International reports, to make sure that her ‘date’ will never harass little girls again…
Hard Candy is a film of suspense and discomfort, one that will have you at the edge of your seat, cringing and flinching as Hayley takes her revenge on Jeff on behalf of a young girl she suspects he has murdered and of all other abuse victims out there. It is effective because it displays a real awareness of the common assumptions about teenagers and child abusers. Jeff is a regular guy, successful, handsome, charming and popular with his neighbours – one (played by Sandra Oh) even drops by to sell him cookies to raise money for her daughter’s girls scouts group.

In other words, paedophiles are not necessarily dirty, repulsive old men, but could just as well be the guy next-door or even in your own family. This image is implied both in the arguments of those who promote public access to the registry of sex offenders and those who oppose it on the grounds that this fails to target unknown perverts in our homes, workplaces and neighbourhoods.

The film uses familiar social and cultural references. When Jeff hands over a drink to Hayley, for example, she says that teenage girls are always told they shouldn’t drink anything they haven’t poured for themselves. She then mixes up screwdrivers for them both and it’s when Jeff starts feeling queasy, passes out and wakes up tied up to a chair that we realise Hayley is no regular 14-year-old and that play time is definitely over.

Jeff’s walls are adorned with photographs he has taken of young girls. To Hayley, they are proof of his pornographic mind, but Jeff defends himself and says they are fashion shots, that he uses his house as a studio and to receive clients, that he really is a good person – after all he doesn’t just take pictures of girls, he has also taken nature shots for environmental charities. When he pleads to be released saying his career will be ruined if the police finds out, Hayley snaps back: ‘Oh yeah? Didn’t Roman Polanski just win an Oscar?’

Hard Candy is not essentially a morality tale and doesn’t directly deal with the issue of paedophilia. The British director, David Slade, has indeed tapped into the widespread concern about paedophilia, child protection and internet security. That’s why coupling up a paedophile perpetrator and an under-aged victim, confusing the roles and confounding the viewers as to who the ‘bad guy’ is, makes the film effective.

The strength of the film, in other words, is that it’s a well-made psychotic thriller. Some, however, have seen the film as problematic because it is unrealistic and lacks a moral lesson. A reviewer in the Independent (2) has suggested that ‘…however much we learn about the duo, we don’t learn much about the wider issues which the film touches on’ and that ‘If a film’s going to take on such grave subject matter, and plead that children should never be mistaken for adults, however mature they might seem, it shouldn’t make its 14-year-old lead a super-articulate criminal mastermind – quite apart from the damage it does to the plot’s credibility.’ A reviewer in The Times (London) (3) concludes that ‘The butt-kicking teen vigilante is as much a fiction as the paedophile’s fantasy of a sexually reciprocating child. What’s more, it’s an unhelpful message for victims of abuse who not only have to contend with the shame but also now the guilt that they weren’t worldly enough to extract a suitably gory revenge.’

The last comment is particularly puzzling. Why has this reviewer assumed that sexual abuse victims will be ashamed that they haven’t been ‘worldly’ enough to torture their abusers, as if that is an admirable response? But at least she realises that butt-kicking vigilantism is a fiction. The shock and horror of Hard Candy is provoked from a sense of disbelief rather than recognition. Unfortunately those who in the past couple of weeks have issued panicky warnings of paedophile lynching seem unable to keep the fictional world of psychotic thrillers apart from the real world of a sensible society.

(1) See The politics of a paedophile panic, by Mick Hume

(2) Hard Candy, Nicholas Barber, Independent, 30 June 2006

(3) Hard Candy, The Times (London)

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