The movies have always been in love with little girls (cue musical number). One particular style seems to enchant more than any other. Intelligent beyond her years, more sympathetic to adults than her peers, and positioned at the center of an otherwise-adult world, comes the enduring cinematic image of the girl wonder: the young woman on the verge of adolescence who seems to have extraordinary, even supernatural, qualities simply by virtue of what she is. From Let Me In to The City of Lost Children, these girl wonders appear as the center of a narrative focused on their precocious emotional abilities; interestingly, they're often partnered onscreen with a man, a Little Red Riding Hood with a tame wolf at her side.
In fact, that seminal tale of a girl and her beast is a central image in both the suburban-magical-realism drama Lawn Dogs and the psychological thriller Hard Candy. But from that iconic figure in red walking into the darkness come two very different girls. In Lawn Dogs, the heroine is the placid, slightly oddball ten-year-old Devon, whose friendship with an older man is considered literally magical in its uniqueness, and is presented as a fairy-tale idyll. By contrast, Hard Candy is the original Grimm; its girl wonder, Hayley, is aware of the trope in which she finds herself, and is determined to make the watchers accountable.
Ironically, Lawn Dogs opens with another fairy story—Baba Yaga, told by the young Devon to herself while preparing cookies for a charity sale (most with raisin navels, one with a unfortunate fly). But soon after, she dons a red cap, wheels her wagon into the forest, and discovers the wolf. Trent makes his living mowing lawns in Devon's gated community; he's treated as subhuman by its inhabitants. With Devon a misfit and Trent an outsider, they strike up a friendship right in line with the usual dynamics of the girl wonder: she crosses boundaries (showing up at his trailer for an unplanned sleepover), and his initial resistance to the friendship becomes a pronounced intimacy. (She encourages him to touch the long scar on her bare chest left over from heart surgery, in exchange for a feel of the shotgun scar on his stomach, assuring him, "It's not my tits I want to show you, stupid!" in response to his notably worded concern, "You're not old enough.")
To undercut the idea that this level of familiarity between a man and a girl wonder is inappropriate, the movie provides a hostile, groping neighbor as contrast—one against whom Devon is unable to articulate an accusation, making her later admissions about her friendship with Trent ripe for misunderstanding. (In a slightly unusual departure from the idea of the tame wolf alongside the girl wonder, Trent never defends her against this neighbor's harassment; he never knows.) In order to save him from being murdered by her father, Devon gives Trent the red towel and comb from the Baba Yaga legend; as she watches from a tree draped impossibly in ribbons of red, he flees and drops the items behind him, turning them into the flood and the forest she promised to aid his escape—a literal manifestation of the power of a girl wonder's love.
Hard Candy is a stark contrast in tone—a claustrophobic psychological thriller in which fourteen-year-old Hayley exacts revenge against photographer Jeff, whom she suspects of raping and murdering a classmate. But Hayley's red hood and the enforced isolation of the house where Jeff takes her are fixtures of the Red Riding Hood tale, and this film seems to be constructed as a sidelong response to the fascination of men with girl wonders themselves. Jeff's fashion-photography specialty is underage girls; the goal of Hayley's torture is to get his confession about the rape and murder of Donna Mauer, who she initially claims is a friend. However, Hayley is really a cipher (she even tells him, "I'm every little girl you ever watched, touched, hurt, screwed, killed"), paring down the story to a nearly mythical allegory about the revenge of the girl wonder—the object punishing the objectifier. Jeff eventually confesses to a role in Donna Mauer's rape and murder, in the movie's last moments. It provides closure for Hayley (and, presumably, the audience that's watched him suffer at the hands of the teen he'd tried to harm), but it's almost a secondary confession to the film's early revelation of his character: he's paid to objectify underage girls, and in his spare time he seeks them out online, pretending to have that girl-wonder's connection as a means to a sinister end.
What makes these movies a striking pair when laid side by side is their portrayal of the protective cinematic innocence of the girl wonder—and what happens when that idyll is over.
Devon, otherwise portrayed as precociously intelligent, is given bouts of misunderstanding the world around her that both emphasize her childishness and lead those around her to interpret her relationship with Trent as inappropriate (though there's as much anger over their class difference as their age difference). The Baba Yaga story surfaces again as Devon tries to classify (and perhaps exert a charming influence on) her relationship with Trent, a fairy-tale gloss that further removes them from what would otherwise be an uncomfortable reality. It also highlights Devon's pointed innocence, which helps justify Trent's final escape and the aid she willingly lends.
Hard Candy strips the fairy tale of magical trappings, and examines what happens when a girl wonder crosses the invisible line between an object of innocence and an object of sexualization. Hayley is well aware of the gaze to which she's subject, and is able to wield innocence in order to bring the wolf to the door, avenge all those who have come before, and make it clear what Jeff has done that's brought him here. ("It's just so easy to blame a kid, isn't it!" she accuses—after he points out "you certainly act older than you are"—and explains, "Just because a girl knows how to imitate a woman does NOT mean she's ready to do what a woman does.") And, tellingly, it's the fear of exposure that drives Jeff to commit suicide using the rope she provided, in exchange for her silence. (It's a promise we never know if she keeps.) Our last look at Hayley is of her in the iconic red hood, the last of childhood vanished, having turned into another, more dangerous beast, who has cinematic sisters aplenty and a trope all her own: the girl monstrous.
Coming of age is an evergreen topic in film, and many have been made without a girl wonder at their centers; those that do, especially in stories with speculative elements, often have that overlay of (almost exclusively) adult male fascination, their preadolescence the buffer of innocence that excuses, if it doesn't explain, these symbiotic dynamics. Having come out the other side of this, however, it's up to the girls on film to mind themselves; they're Riding Hoods past the age of being saved by the woodsman, too tempting to tame the wolf; once reaching the age of sexuality, if they're going to escape the wolf, they must cut themselves free.