• Annie Rose Malamet

'Hard Candy,' 'An American Crime,' & Gender Performance in Elliot Page's Early Filmography

In the mid-aughts, Elliot Page starred in two quietly-released crime dramas, David Slade’s Hard Candy (2005) and Tommy O’Haver’s An American Crime (2007). These films were a major departure from Page’s breakout role in Jason Reitman’s irreverent yet Oscar-winning teen comedy Juno, where Page’s performance was instilled with trademark wit by writer Diablo Cody. This stint as Juno’s carefree, pro-choice teen was sandwiched between these two demanding depictions of child sexual abuse.

In Hard Candy, Page is showcased as a rape revenge heroine à la exploitation genre traditions, updated for the new millennium. An American Crime is even more of a departure from the roles that many associate with Page; here, Page pivots to a passive performance in a leading role. Ripped from the headlines and released directly after Juno in 2007, he starred as Sylvia Likens, a 16 year-old girl who was brutally tortured and murdered by her female guardian in working class Illinois during the 1960s. When Hard Candy, Juno, and An American Crime are considered as linear filmography, one notices how the vast range of teenage sexual experiences into which the actor bravely immersed before turning 19.

Elliot Page is two years older than me; though younger, I’d been precocious enough to watch both of Hard Candy and An American Crime shortly after their release. Only just beginning to consider my own body in the context of my burgeoning feminism, I was grappling with my own history of sexual abuse. In high school, I discovered and began binging rape revenge films after winning a videocassette of the genre’ signature film, Meir Zarchi’s I Spit On Your Grave (1978), on eBay. One night, while prowling the aisles of my local Blockbuster, a DVD cover caught my eye. The film’s sleeve depicted a young girl in a bright red hoodie; she stood in the jaws of a giant menacing iron bear trap.

In Hard Candy, Elliot Page plays 14 year-old Hayley Stark opposite Patrick Wilson’s pederast photographer Jeff. The man and the girl, striking up an online flirtation, eventually decide to make it all concrete by meeting at a local coffee shop; the move, decidedly 2005, somehow seems less dated when considered in 2020’s limited romantic landscape. Hayley and Jeff’s flirting begins as an exercise in cringe. After the date, Hayley goes to Jeff’s house to take some photos with him. But Hayley is quick to flip the dynamic; any discomfort viewers have about Hayley’s age turns into a discomfort of another sort. After drugging and binding Jeff, Hayley subjects the would-be predator to various psychological and physical tortures in the name of vengeance. Specifically, Hayley acts on behalf of a missing girl named Donna Mauer, whom the teenager believes Jeff has had a part in killing.

Hard Candy, to put it lightly, is a difficult film. The “rape revenge” trope is stripped away of grindhouse’s campy, gritty accoutrements. There’s none of the mischief that brought the subject underground popularity in the 1970s and 1980s. This lack renders Hard Candy sterile, and, worse: sanctimonious. From the Fincher-esque opening credits, to the minimalist set dressing of Jeff’s interiors, to the cynical ending, the film lacks the outlandish catharsis of a typical rape revenge flick: Camille Keaton seducing and castrating a man in a bathtub, fixing her hair casually as he screams in I Spit on Your Grave, Zoe Lund fighting off a gang of thugs armed only with a .45 caliber in Ms. 45, Margaux Hemingway chasing down and running over her rapist after he attacks her sister in Lipstick.

By eliminating the hysterics and gore, Hard Candy positions the subject of violation and the rage that follows into a painfully 2000s context, complete with wry, ironic humor, lighting that exposes all, and Goldfrapp references. All of this lends itself to a performed seriousness that makes the film somewhat of a slog. Without any humor to cling to during the (ultimately fake) forced castration of Jeff the predator, we are forced to barrel through the discomfort of what we are watching, sans laughter’s welcome crutch.

Despite being hard on Hard Candy fifteen years later, I freely loved David Slade’s first feature during my first viewing in 2006. I saw myself in Hayley Stark, played by Page with a roguish intensity that elevates Slade’s film and balances the bleak miasma it creates. Page, then 16, is able to embody a tomboyish virginal innocence that, all the while, cloaks a heart of vengeance, pulsing red like her hoodie. Once the game is flipped and Hayley finally reveals her grim plans to Jeff, the controlled hatred and sharp wit that Page switches on is impressive in contrast to the gullible teenager he channels in Hard Candy’s opening scenes. Page almost spits the lines from the script that admonish Jeff, his eyes narrowing, his teenage smirk mocking the way adults operate; as though children are too stupid to realize what they’re doing. And yet as Hayley administers tortures, Page plays the girl as calm, capable, witty, and even affable. His whole performance is one of disciplined and calculated rage; simply, it’s fantastic. In this production, it is easy to see why Page would go on to become a star in the colosseum of American entertainment.

Penned by Manohla Dargis, The New York Times’ contemporaneous review of Hard Candy ran under a headline that deemed Page’s Hayley Stark an “Internet Lolita.” This choice of comparison propagates the myopic understanding of Nabokov’s Lolita that became ubiquitous after Kubrick’s filmic interpretation of the titular character as a lethal teen temptress. This dire misunderstanding of young Dolores Hayes is one that feminist writer Jamie Loftus has taken to task in her newest endeavor, Lolita Podcast. Loftus’ approach makes room for literary research and nuance when examining the misogynist obsession with the sexual suffering that plagues women and girls like Dolores, Hayley, Sylvia, and myself. Hard Candy certainly takes up this mantle, too. Despite its shortcomings, it is unique for the main girl character to be a child who was never actually assaulted; Lolita’s revenge, indeed. The subject of rape revenge films are typically adult women. That we are ultimately unsure of Hayley’s actual identity and age adds to a sense of her as an omnipotent figure in total control rather than a victim turned killer. In hindsight, I realize the lack of actual rape in my beloved rape revenge genre was appealing to me. I was a 16 year-old survivor who’d been assaulted by an adult man not far in age or sexual appeal from Patrick Wilson’s character. I saw someone I wanted to be in Hayley Stark and subconsciously exemplified and conceptualized this character as having an experience and possessing a trauma unique to the experience of girlhood.

Girlhood as a state of suffering and trauma is the tangential subject of Kate Millett’s personal exploration of the Sylvia Likens case in her book The Basement: Meditations On A Human Sacrifice, published in 1979, fifteen years after the young girl’s murder, and 28 years before Page would shoot the biopic of the tragedy, An American Crime. The Likens case is one of the most brutal in Indiana state history, occurring at a moment when child abuse was just beginning to be taken seriously as a crime. Left in the care of Gertrude Baniszewski, Sylvia and her sister Jenny Likens endured horrific abuse from the sick and battered single mother who was at the time caring for seven children on her own. Baniszewski eventually zeroed in on Sylvia as an outlet for her rage, subjecting the 16 year-old girl to countless tortures by her own hand or those administered by her children at her behest. Gertie even roped in the neighborhood children, providing a space where the youngsters could beat up on one of their own without the prying eyes of responsible adults. Sylvia was eventually relegated to and locked in the basement with only a puppy for company, where she was starved and tortured to death. She died in 1965 and the case became one of the few in American history where minors have been charged with manslaughter.

Millett’s book is part true crime, part personal essay, part speculative fiction. She adds a personal narrative to the story, positioning the crime and her horror around it alongside her own experiences of sexual violence, making The Basement a watershed text in the feminist true crime sphere. Indeed, the hybrid true crime/personal essay motif is still quite popular today. For example, the book I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by the late Michelle McNamara on her vulnerable personal journey in hunting The Golden State Killer remained on The New York Times Bestseller List for 15 weeks and was recently made into a popular HBO documentary. Back in 2007 when the late author was still alive, Kate Millett was reached for comment on the newly released An American Crime. She essentially reiterated the thesis of her book.“It is the story of the suppression of women,” Millett observed. “Gertrude seems to have wanted to administer some terrible truthful justice to this girl: that this was what it was to be a woman.”

Much like my own experience of watching Hard Candy, Sylvia’s story took personal shape for Millett. In the beginning chapters of The Basement, she reflects on why the Likens case hit her so hard:

“Because I was Sylvia Likens. She was me. She was sixteen. I had been. She was the terror at the back of the cave, she was what ‘happens’ to girls. Or can. Or might. Or has from time to time, and you carry that in your mind if you are sixteen or ever have been or female and the danger is around you. Women, the corpses of women, surfacing in newsprint, in some hideously savaged state or another in the trunk of a car. We all have a story like this, and I had found mine.”

Another queer woman with true crime predilections had also a taken an interest in the Sylvia Likens story. Christine Vachon (famed lesbian producer of another gender crime-based film, Boys Don’t Cry) would end up producing and co-writing An American Crime. Indiana native Tommy O’Haver was chosen as the director, close to the case for reasons besides gender trauma. If the film reads like a highbrow made-for-television movie, that’s because it was. After debuting at Sundance Film Festival in 2007, An American Crime premiered on Showtime in May 2008 to positive reviews.

An American Crime is a drab film that is rescued from total ennui thanks to performances by Catherine Keener as Gertrude Baniszweski and Elliot Page as Sylvia Likens. Page is an impeccable choice to play Sylvia, who by firsthand accounts was quite the tomboyish cutup. In fact, Millett speculates on Sylvia’s gender transgressions as one of the key motives for her suppression and torture by Gertrude, a victim of abject womanhood. Unfortunately, Page is all but wasted in this department. As Sylvia, he wears cute 60s dresses instead of the wool slacks the real Sylvia often wore. His tomboy swagger, so loved by the camera, is neglected instead of showcased, only peeking out at random, unintentional intervals. Sylvia is insultingly portrayed as a virginal shrinking violet when, in real life, she was quite scrappy and competent. Her daring escape attempts are completely left out of this rendering; a detail of the crime that Millett highlights and goes back to again and again in The Basement.

Viewing these two films now with a keener eye and a more robust understanding of gender and violence, I was not as concerned with what these films are trying to convey about violence against women. I’m more interested in the reactions the stories elicit from viewers (myself included), and for Elliot Page’s embodiment of gender on-screen. In my recent rewatch of Hard Candy, I was struck by how matured my experience of the film is as an adult; now, there is clear separation between myself and the child on-screen. Meanwhile, that child now reads to me as a young, queer, transmasculine person. This enriched my enjoyment of the film rather than besmirching it, as TERFs often bemoan when trans men/masculine people come out. They feel their connection to and experience of that person’s oeuvre to be tainted by the performer’s “new” gender. Of course, this is patently bigoted, never mind an inane, childish, and rudimentary way to connect with art. Page’s queer gender is part of what is so compelling about his performance; he is an “avenging angel” for the traumas of girlhood so many of us were forced to endure and from which we emerge thoroughly scathed. “Girlhood” is not an identity, and a young person need not be a woman or girl to endure the trauma of “girlhood” (a concept non-consensually thrust on children) as a state of marginalization.

As for An American Crime, an analysis of gender performance becomes more complex when faced with the horrific truth of the crime portrayed. After my rewatch, I turned again to Millett’s personal examination in The Basement. The most compelling part of the text is the author’s willingness to embody Gertrude Baniszweski in first person narrative, and the moments when she examines the futility in conveying the horrors she describes. In imagining what Gertrude and Sylvia might have been thinking, she interrogates her own motives, as no one will ever really know what happened in Indianapolis, Indiana during the summer of 1965. There is no such self-awareness in An American Crime. The title itself sanctimoniously presumes the nature of what is an “American crime,” and what follows is a diluted version of events not worthy of such grand statements. After all, if you’re going to go there, at least actually go there. I wonder if such a lukewarm production was worth upsetting Dianna Bedwell-Knutson, Sylvia and Jenny’s surviving sister, who was never asked for permission to share this story. ”It’s their gain, our pain,” she remarked to The New York Times in 2007.

In dissecting the hydra that is gendered violence and all its components, Gertrude Banisweski took on the role of a kind of TERF-like specter to me. Just as she punished Sylvia for being a girl, for being a tomboy, I see TERFs as punishing trans people for their girlness (their trans femininity or perceived cisgender femaleness), torturing them for daring to have lived through girlhood, to have made it out the other side with a kernel of their own gender intact; one that has nothing to do with their desire to over identify.

Having experienced other cis women explaining how my connection to my own gender should manifest is perhaps why I take such umbrage with current “gender critical” rhetoric. Besides being bigoted, these “feminists” presume to know every cis woman’s experience of our own gender identity when they speak for us, folding us into their hate mission. Elliot Page’s portrayals in Hard Candy and An American Crime, so nuanced and powerful, aided in my understanding of the sexual violations I experienced. But perhaps just as traumatic were the follow- up blows dealt by older women in my life. As I became involved in higher education feminist circles, women I admired dismissed my interest in violent depictions of sexuality as patriarchal brainwashing. Again I felt alienated, othered, and patronized, just as I had in the aftermath of sexual assault. I found greater camaraderie and understanding in these imperfect films, buoyed by the passionate performances of a young queer trans actor.