As a child I got a thrill out of watching movies that featured kids outsmarting adults. I could never forget the ingenuity of Macaulay Culkin’s character in Home Alone (1990) or how his spectacularly booby trapped house and quick thinking foiled the plans of two hardened (albeit dimwitted) criminals taking advantage of the Christmas season. I also loved watching Lindsay Lohan take on a dual role as twin sisters swapping lives and sabotaging their parents’ affairs in The Parent Trap to the point where I had to watch the movie almost every weekend.
With the exception of films like Home Alone and The Parent Trap—family friendly movies whose plot focuses on crafty children—most films give children a secondary role. Sometimes children bridge the emotional gap between two prospective lovers in romantic films; other times children are seen but not actually heard, serving no greater purpose than to be part of a family unit. For this reason, even now as an adult, I am still drawn to films that show children asserting their authority or even films that capture the brilliance and a child’s awareness of the world. A film that truly alters the balance of authority between child and adult is David Slade’s Hard Candy (2005).
Hard Candy, a film about a 14-year-old vigilante who confronts and psychologically tortures an unsuspecting man, whom she believes to be a pedophile, demonstrates a non-adult character taking charge and behaving in an atypically mature manner. The film plays on the audience’s preconceived notions about children being helpless without supervision. When I first watched the movie (having been completely clueless about Hard Candy’s premise), I assumed I was going to be sitting through a film about some unfortunate girl enduring a traumatic experience at the disposal of the villainous pedophile Jeff. The opening scene plays up the young girl Hayley’s supposed naiveté in order to make her control and maturity more effective later in the film.
The façade of Hayley Stark’s innocence begins with a close up of an inappropriate chat dialog between a 39-year-old photographer Jeff aka “lensman319” and Hayley. Neither character is seen but the nature of the conversation is cause for concern. Hayley’s suggestively promiscuous yet childish screen name, “thonggrrl14” coupled with her flirtatious comments make her seem like the stereotypical teenage girl who carelessly draws attention to her age while trusting a complete stranger with her inner thoughts and personal information. While reading lensman319’s texts insisting that he and Hayley “finally hook up” and Hayley’s suggestion that he “film [her] with [his] vidoecamera” before “doing it,” I could not stop myself from wondering if she either had ever seen Primetime or was just plain stupid. Needless to say, after seeing Hayley’s character for the first time, I was thoroughly convinced that she would fall into the trap of
In the subsequent scene, the first meeting of Hayley and Jeff, Hayley is the epitome of puerility, and Jeff the calculating and personable pedophile. If I wasn’t already disturbed by this little girl so eager to get in a stranger’s car and drive to the man’s house alone, the intimacy established with back-to-back close-ups of Hayley’s and Jeff’s faces made me extremely uncomfortable. The first shot of Hayley is a close-up in which she turns around; her soft features, round face, round eyes as wide as a baby’s, and slightly confused expression as she asks, “Jeff?” give evidence to her apparent youth and naiveté. A close up of Jeff follows; his smiling face and open demeanor are inviting to Hayley even as he inspires suspicion in the viewer. Even though Jeff is rather attractive –with his stylish hair, chiseled face, and boyish charm— his predatory looks, the way he undresses Hayley with his eyes, and his wolfish grin make him seem like a lecherous old creep.
The cuts between Hayley and Jeff ‘s close-ups reveal the difference in their height since Hayley’s head is almost always tilted up and Jeff’s is always at a downward slant. A long shot of Jeff’s tall figure is a startling contrast to Hayley’s petite frame and size. This difference in stature symbolizes Jeff’s authority and draws more attention to Hayley’s childishness. Just as Jeff typically dominates the frame in his non-close-ups, he seems to be entirely in control of the situation. As is typical of his type, he engages Hayley in conversation making sure to only speak about topics that interest her, boy-bands and teen novels—things that would be trivial to any grown man. For a brief moment a flier with the face of a smiling girl and the word MISSING come into focus, standing out on the wall just opposite of where Hayley and Jeff decide to sit. The appearance of the missing girl’s photo led me to believe that a similar fate would befall Hayley. Everything suggested Hayley’s eventual demise, and I had no way of knowing how wrong I was until everything takes a strange turn at Jeff’s home.
After Hayley manages to get Jeff drunk in his own home, her demeanor becomes sadistic. With Hayley’s childishness sentiment exchanged for a cold mask of indifference and sadism, Jeff becomes the target of the viewer’s sympathy. While the close-ups are still a factor in this scene, Hayley’s eyes are no longer round and her mouth becomes a thin disapproving line, proof that she was putting on a face the entire time in the café. Having tied Jeff up in a chair she insults him for believing she would be dumb enough to “chase him to the next drink.” When Hayley says, "Just because a girl can pretend to be a woman doesn't mean she's ready to be a woman," she let's both Jeff and the viewer know that her logic is sound and she's aware of how things should be. Her verbiage becomes more complex and less moronic as she explains her true intention to discover what secrets Jeff may be hiding in his home.
Hayley proves her intelligence as she admits to intentionally behaving like a trusting young girl, who would foolishly believe that “anyone could know so much about her.” The balance of power has clearly changed. The few long shots, show Jeff—his height stolen by the low position of the chair—now appearing shorter than Hayley who stands confidently before him with her hands on her hips. This reversal of stature is also apparent in the close-ups with a discombobulated Jeff, staring up at Hayley with a confused expression and Hayley looking down at Jeff. Jeff’s growing uncertainty and anxiety comes out in his voice as he asks Hayley, “What are you going to do to me?” Overwhelmed by the drastic change in events, I couldn’t help but see the irony in Hayley’s response, “Anything I want!” With Hayley’s dubious nature revealed, and the ambiguity of Jeff’s involvement with the missing girl, Jeff becomes the prey and Hayley the predator.