The film premiered at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival, and was screened at the Florida Film Festival in April 2006. It had limited release in two theaters in the US. The film made over $7 million at the box office, including almost $6 million from outside the US, on a budget of under $1 million.
The film opens with a sexually charged, flirtatious online chat between 14-year-old Hayley Stark and Jeff Kohlver, a 32-year-old photographer. Jeff and Hayley meet at a coffeehouse, and he takes her back to his house. Hayley makes them both screwdrivers and asks him to take photographs. Before he can, Jeff gets dizzy, his vision blurs, and he falls to the floor unconscious.
When Jeff wakes, he is bound to a chair. Hayley explains she has been tracking him and drugged him because she knows he is a pedophile, rapist, and murderer. Jeff denies these allegations, claiming he had innocent intentions. Hayley searches Jeff's house and finds his gun and safe. In the safe, Hayley finds "sick" pictures and a photo of Donna Mauer, a local girl who has been kidnapped and remains missing. Jeff denies involvement in Mauer's disappearance and succeeds in reaching his gun, but when he (still bound to the chair) attacks Hayley, she renders him unconscious by asphyxiating him with plastic wrap.
When Jeff wakes, he finds himself bound to a steel table with a bag of ice on his genitals. Hayley explains she will castrate Jeff. Jeff threatens, bribes and sweet-talks Hayley to dissuade her; when that doesn't work, he tries to get her sympathy by telling her he was abused as a child. Following the operation, Hayley leaves the kitchen, claiming to take a shower. Jeff struggles and frees himself. When he reluctantly checks the site of the operation, he realizes he is actually unharmed, and Hayley has elaborately faked his castration. He storms off in a rage to get Hayley in the bathroom, where the shower is running. Scalpel in hand, he attacks, only to find the shower empty. Hayley attacks him from behind, and as they struggle, Hayley incapacitates him with a stun gun.
Hayley poses as a police officer and asks Jeff's ex-girlfriend, Janelle, to come immediately to Jeff's house. Jeff regains consciousness to find that Hayley has bound his wrists and hoisted him to stand on a chair in his kitchen with a noose around his neck. Hayley makes Jeff an offer: if he commits suicide, she promises to erase the evidence of his crimes, but if he refuses, she promises to expose his secrets. The conversation is interrupted when a neighbor knocks on the front door, selling Girl Scout cookies. Hayley tells the neighbor that she is Jeff's niece; the neighbor leaves shortly afterwards. When Hayley returns, Jeff breaks free from his bindings and pursues her, eventually finding her on the roof of his house, where she has lured him. Hayley has brought her rope from the kitchen and fashioned it into a noose secured to the chimney. Hayley keeps Jeff at bay with his own gun.
Jeff finally confesses that he watched while another man raped and murdered Donna Mauer. Jeff promises Hayley that, if she spares his life, he will tell her the other man's name so she can exact her revenge. Hayley confesses that she knows his name and says, "Aaron told me you did it before he killed himself." Janelle arrives, and Hayley once again urges Jeff to hang himself, promising that she will destroy the evidence. Defeated, Jeff lets Hayley slide the noose around his neck, and takes the last fatal step off the roof; after he falls Hayley says "or not". Hayley then gathers her belongings and escapes through the woods. The film ends as Hayley walks down the road in her red hoodie.Ellen Page as Hayley Stark
Patrick Wilson as Jeff Kohlver
Sandra Oh as Judy Tokuda, the neighbor
Odessa Rae (credited as Jennifer Holmes) as Janelle Rogers
Erin Kraft as Donna Mauer in photos
Gabe Kerr as Nighthawks Clerk
Cori Bright as Girl in Nighthawks
The idea for Hard Candy came from a news story producer David W. Higgins saw on 20/20 about young Japanese girls who would lure older businessmen to a location with the promise of meaningful conversation, only to assault and mug the men with a gang of other girls. This led him to wonder, "What if the person you expect to be the predator is not who you expect it to be? What if it's the other person?" He then hired writer Brian Nelson to flesh out the idea. Due to the controversial nature of the work, the budget was kept under $1 million so that the production company would not ask to change anything.
Very little dubbing was used in the film, with only a couple of lines modified in post-production. Only nine minutes of music are present in the film, with ambient sounds, such as heavy breathing, making up most of the soundtrack. The film was shot in 18 days, largely in sequence, and mostly on a soundstage. Hayley wears a red hooded sweatshirt that is often seen as an allusion to Little Red Riding Hood. However, this was a serendipitous wardrobe choice by the creative team that was not realized until later on. Foreign marketing for the film made use of this allusion. For example, a tagline on the Japanese site for the film reads: "Red Hood traps the Wolf in his own game."
Jean-Clement Sorret was the digital colorist for the film, this being one of the few instances in which a colorist received a spot in the opening credits. The film contains many coloring effects and "density shifts" of lighting to reflect the moods of the characters. For example, when Hayley gets angry, the colors would be edited to be of lower frequency. One effect used which, as far as the director is aware, had not been done in cinema before, was to brighten the lighting in filming and correct everything down in post-production. This allowed for facial details to be visible even while having a darkened atmosphere. According to the DVD extras, the process required a custom-built digital intermediate to be made and proved to be extremely difficult, with corrections having to be made frame-by-frame in some instances. This technique, known as ETTR, is a standard procedure in digital photography and cinematography to minimize the amount of noise in shadows and midtones. Early working titles of the script were Vendetta and Snip Snip. The producer wanted a title with a "sugar and spice combination and a mixture of harsh roughness, innocence, and vulnerability", and settled on the title Hard Candy.
The film premiered at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival with a midnight screening. The Dolby Surround System failed before the screening and the audience was kept out until it was repaired. Hard Candy was also screened at the Florida Film Festival on April 1, 2006.
Hard Candy opened in two theaters in Los Angeles and New York City on April 14, 2006 in a limited release. During its opening weekend, the film grossed $58,049 averaging $29,704 per theater, the highest per-screen average in the top 50. It ended its run with $1,024,640 at the North American box office, and a further $5,997,569 internationally for a total of $7,022,209.
Rotten Tomatoes gives the film 68% from 138 reviews and an average rating of 6.4 out of 10. The critical consensus states: "Disturbing, controversial, but entirely engrossing, Hard Candy is well written with strong lead performances, especially that of newcomer Ellen Page. A movie that stays with the viewer long after leaving the theater." The film also has a score of 58 out of 100 on Metacritic based on 30 critics indicating "mixed or average reviews."
Roger Ebert gave the film 3 and a half stars out of four and wrote that "There is undeniable fascination in the situation as it unfolds... Seen as a film, seen as acting and direction, seen as just exactly how it unfolds on the screen, Hard Candy is impressive and effective." Steve Persall wrote in the Tampa Bay Times he saw the movie in a crowded bar, yet "until the shocking end, there's nothing less than rapt attention to this sordid thriller about an online predator (Wilson) and his not-so-innocent prey (Ellen Page). On a party night in New Orleans? That's how creepy-good this movie is." Steve Schneider, writing in the Orlando Weekly, praised the films "grabber of a sicko setup... It's a memorably tense pas de deux, and if the movie doesn't pay off on it properly, fault a script that ventures further and further into psychological thriller claptrap, leaving the two stars to rely on their hefty talents to keep it at all believable."
Caroline Westbrook at Empire magazine called it a "cracking little thriller". David Edwards at the Daily Mirror praised it as a "smart, challenging and timely look at the world of internet grooming". Todd McCarthy at Variety praised the "spectacular performance by teenage thesp Ellen Page". On the other hand, Jonathan Rosenbaum referred to it as torture and mutilation and wrote: "I'd rather have this movie obliterated from my memory." The New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis recognized the film's debt to "Ariel Dorfman and Neil LaBute, among others", but did not care for the torture theme "in the age of Abu Ghraib".
Page's performance was received well by critics; Lynn Hirschberg of The New York Times Magazine said "a star was born, but almost no one noticed", describing Hard Candy as Page's initial artistic breakthrough performance, and her role in the 2007 film Juno as her mainstream popularity breakthrough performance. Claudia Puig from USA Today praised her for "remain[ing] consistently convincing" to her role which is both "powerful and chilling ... She manages to be both cruelly callous and likable, and hers is one of the most complex, disturbing and haunting performances of the year."
The film won three awards at the 2005 Sitges Film Festival and four awards at the 2006 Málaga Film Festival. The film also won Overlooked Film of the Year at the 2006 Phoenix Film Critics Society Awards. Page won the Best Actress award from the Austin Film Critics Association. Page was nominated for the Breakthrough Performer award at the 2006 Online Film Critics Society Awards, and Best Female Newcomer at the 12th Empire Awards. The film was nominated for Best Foreign Independent film at the 2006 British Independent Film Awards, and the film's trailer was nominated for Best Thriller and Best Titles in a Trailer at the 7th Golden Trailer Awards.
The American DVD was released on September 19, 2006 with two commentary tracks, a 52-minute making-of featurette, six deleted and extended scenes, the script and director's notebook, and trailers for Hard Candy and other Lionsgate films. Francis Rizzo III from DVD Talk gave a positive review, praising the DVD's quality and extras. The Blu-ray was released by Lionsgate Home Entertainment on October 5, 2010, and contained the same special features as the DVD. Aaron Peck from High-Def Digest and Jeffrey Kauffman from Blu-ray.com both awarded the Blu-ray four out of five stars.