Note: This review originally ran during the Toronto International Film Festival. It is being reprinted now because the film is in limited release.
I overheard some press folks the other day discussing whether to check out the film Candy, and whether it's even possible at this point to make a film about drug addiction and drug addicts, without resorting to the trite and cliched. The thing is, it's a truth that many stories repeat themes done over and and over again -- drug abuse, child abuse, adultery, politics, the line between love and hate -- misery and tragedy are great fodder for interesting stories. Who wants to see a film about perfect, happy people? It's not whether the subject matter has been handled any number of times, it's the way that it's handled in any given story, whether book or film, that will either make a story stand on its own merit or stumble as we agonize over the cliches. Two other (at least) films on the fest circuit this year, Sherrybaby and Half Nelson, told stories of drug addiction in completely different ways. Now director Neil Armfield tries his hand at the subject with Candy, an adaptation of the book Candy: A Novel of Love and Addiction, by Luke Davies, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Armfield.
Heath Ledger plays Dan, a would-be poet who can't seem to ever get his life on track, who meets Candy (Abbie Cornish), a nice-girl art student from a middle-class family. The film opens with Candy and Dan at an amusement park on a spinning ride (the kind where you stand up and the faster it goes, the more you are stuck against the wall), a visual metaphor that sets the stage for what is to come. Candy is drawn to Dan like a moth to a flame, perhaps out of rebellion against her staid and conservative parents, or perhaps out of that inexplicable attraction that some young women feel toward men who are clearly losers. Some women get in relationships like that with the belief they can save the man from himself; in Candy's case, she doesn't want to throw a life preserver to Dan -- she wants to dive headfirst into misery with him.
Dan is a heroin addict, and Candy, who has been playing around with snorting the drug, decides she wants to try it Dan's way -- shooting up. Before you can say, "hey, that's really a bad idea," Candy has made heroin the new love of her life. When Dan and Candy are low on cash or need some good lab-made smack, they turn to Dan's father-figure and mentor, Casper (Geoffrey Rush), an associate professor at a local college. While he might seem to have his life more together than Dan and Candy -- he lives in a nice house and has a good job -- he is just as surely in the claws of addiction as they are. As Casper adroitly describes his addiction, "When you can still quit, you don't want to, and when you want to, you can't."
Dan and Candy, in addition to their addiction to heroin, are just as addicted to each other and to the self-destructive nature of their relationship. It's easy to romanticize a "bohemian" lifestyle at first: The thrill of living hand-to-mouth after a lifetime of predictability, the sense of rebelling against your parents and the world. Dan and Candy wallow in the oddly convergent freedom and prison of addiction -- on the one hand, you don't have to live like "other people," with all the pressure of holding a job, paying bills, and being responsible; on the other, the addiction is always there, tapping on your shoulder for attention, demanding to be fed, and so Candy resorts to earning cash in ways that would even further shock her parents, so she can keep getting that next high.
Candy's parents, acting as the tragic foil in the tale, know full well the destructive nature the relationship with Dan is having on their bright and beautiful daughter, but can only watch helplessly as she spirals endlessly downward, refusing to give up Dan or her dependency on heroin. The acting in the film is solid; Ledger (perhaps competing with Ryan Gosling's recent turn as a drug-addicted teacher in the critically acclaimed Half Nelson), looks physically worse than I've ever seen him, which is apt given the part. I loved Cornish when I saw her in Somersault, and her performance is equally strong here. She captures harrowingly well the desperation with which this nice, lovely and talented girl latches on to addiction and destructive love even while being fully aware that she's willfully throwing the person she used to be away. Rush, always reliable, is melancholy as an older gay man moving sadly through life and younger lovers, waiting tiredly for the day his addiction will carry him away for good.
The weakness with Candy is the character development; we never know why this particular girl goes down this self-destructive path, and then chooses to stay on it. Drug abuse is a problem all over, and white middle class kids are far from immune; boredom with having life planned and plotted and over-filled with activities seems to be a driving force for a lot of kids who end up dabbling in drug use. In this film, though, there's an implication under the surface that Candy is desperately trying to escape from something -- but what? All we really see is that her mom is a bit of an overbearing bitch, but plenty of people grow up with less-than-perfect parents without seeking out escape through addiction. Candy doesn't just accidentally fall into addiction, she takes that path deliberately and doesn't want to get off the train, and we're never really given a reason to understand the whys and wherefores of her actions.
The character of Dan isn't well-defined either. He's just this shiftless addict and would-be poet who somehow drifts into Candy's life. Where he came from, why he has no contact with his family (other that the obvious reason of his addiction), how he came to know Casper, his substitute father -- we know none of these things and are just supposed to fill in the blanks ourselves somehow. And yet, in spite of these flaws, I was still drawn into the tale by the talent of the performers, who help the story rise above its weaknesses. Candy is not a happy, uplifting film. It's bleak and depressing and, if you have an addict in your own life, unbearably frustrating and sad at times, but nonetheless is worth catching, if only to see Cornish and Ledger's performances.