Hard Candy

Opens at Egyptian, Fri., April 28. Rated R. 99 minutes.

Paul Allen's local Vulcan Productions has its finger on the cinematic hot button, thanks to its scary indie about a teenage Fury turning the tables on a 32-year-old pedophile. But edgy as its premise is, the most startling thing about the picture is its out-of-nowhere star, the very recent Halifax, Nova Scotia, high-school grad Ellen Page as Hayley. Going by the Internet handle of "Thonggrrrrrl 14," she packs more wallop than Abel Ferrara's Ms. 45. This is an incandescent film arrival, like Cinderella on a rocket sled, packing heat pointed right in your face. You'll see her as Shadowcat in the next X-Men movie come May 26, but see her here first—she's not apt to top this performance anytime soon.

Patrick Wilson (the tormented gay husband of TV's Angels in America) does very nearly as well in the tricky role of photographer Jeff, Hayley's stalker-turned- stalkee. There's nothing overtly pervy about his manner—he comes off like a cool guy, even avuncularly gallant, despite the appalling assignation he's attempting to perpetrate. After some introductory keyboard foreplay, he meets Thonggrrrrrl at a cafe "in the RW" (aka the Real World, though nothing is real in this fever-dream film). She appears flattered and fluttery, bright and flirty, trying on the seductress role like a glittery thrift-store shift. She's smart, too, burbling about her thing for Zadie Smith and Jean Seberg (whose hairdo she wears and sad fate she laments), full of precocious analyses and insights: "Four out of five doctors agree I'm clinically insane!" Jeff might have paid more attention to what she was saying, but he's blown away by her artless charm.

Like a sicko screwball comedy duo, they banter their way into his sporty Mini Cooper and up to his hepcat photo studio/bachelor pad high in the Hollywood Hills. He nonchalantly offers her a screwdriver; she furrows her befreckled brow and frets that her elders told her never to drink anything you didn't mix yourself. "Smart!" he says, eager to let her mix her own poison, but betraying no eagerness. Well, a little. Later, she reminds him that he didn't heed her warning.

Cinematographer Jo Willems and director David Slade make the most of Jeff's opulently minimalist bungalow, the sweaty, endless extreme close-ups of Hayley's changeable face and his increasingly terrified one. The DV camera and MTV editing slash and lurch until we're unsure what to believe in Candy. It's a low-budget action film of distinction, a collision between an interestingly bizarre hellion and a pedophile in a frighteningly plausible normality mask.

The movie nimbly nails Internet and RW lingo and rhythms, although the sizzle can't hide its structural shortcomings. Candy sets up the tense situation, builds it up patiently, masterfully, then has no idea where to go with it. At least Page's career has an obvious direction—up. She makes Alison Lohman in Matchstick Men and Pretty Persuasion's Evan Rachel Wood look like Camp Fire Girls pitching mints. Her Hayley has the tang of a madness larger than even this film can contain.

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