A spectacular performance by Ellen Page elevates this disturbing slice of designer shocksploitation into a film that's impossible to dismiss on principle. This low-budget but exceedingly accomplished first feature by Brit commercials and video director David Slade stirs deeply conflicted feelings about its characters and the film itself.

A spectacular performance by teenage thesp Ellen Page elevates this disturbing slice of designer shocksploitation into a film that’s impossible to dismiss on principle. Destined to be called “the castration picture” due to the procedure the female lead spends two-thirds of the film preparing to perform on her male captive, this low-budget but exceedingly accomplished first feature by Brit commercials and video director David Slade stirs deeply conflicted feelings about its characters and the film itself. Lions Gate paid $4 million at Sundance for world rights, minus a few territories, and the investment looms as a very good one, as the tense, sleek picture could clean up in Europe and Asia, with the U.S. posing a somewhat chancier but still promising bet.

Roughly inspired by a Japanese case in which schoolgirls lured older men over the Internet, only to beat them up, and influenced by femme revenge pics going back to Abel Ferrara’s “Ms. 45,” Brian Nelson’s clever screenplay pivots on the notion of female payback for all the underage girls molested or killed by adult males.

What Nelson, with the skill of a highly practiced playwright, and Slade manage most adroitly is to force the viewer to shift allegiances many times.

After a frisky Internet dalliance, 32-year-old fashion photographer Jeff Kohlver (Patrick Wilson) meets 14-year-old Hayley Stark (Page) at a Los Angeles cafe. Perhaps it should tell Jeff something that her reading matter consists of a Jean Seberg biography and “Romeo and Juliet” (she even sports a very cute Seberg haircut), but he chooses to overlook the warning signs and take her up to his beautifully minimalist Hollywood Hills home, a location in which, as photographed in bold widescreen compositions by Jo Willems, Michelangelo Antonioni would feel right at home.

Although Jeff says upfront he’s “very aware of the legal boundaries,” he doesn’t prevent his guest from guzzling alcohol. Through all the early banter, Hayley comes off as far beyond her years, like a teasing 19-year-old in a coltish high school freshman’s body.

Suddenly, Jeff passes out. When he awakens, he finds himself bound to a chair and accused by Hayley of being a pedophile, a molester and perhaps even the murderer of a young girl. As Jeff protests his innocence, Hayley scours his emails for incriminating evidence, searches his home for porn and taunts him about his alleged involvements with underage fashion models.

After a brutal struggle, Hayley prevails again, with Jeff this time, at 45 minutes in, tied down on a table, a bag of ice over his crotch and ready to live a scene out of “Reservoir Dogs,” only this time the bit of anatomy is more delicate and precious than an ear. It’s time for “a little preventive maintenance,” announces Hayley as this daughter of a med student begins shaving (offscreen) the area in question.

As one braces for the seemingly inevitable, it’s easy to disengage from the proceedings by dismissing them as low-end cinematic exploitation and sadism, and there is undeniably an element of that; interior voices ranging from whispers to shouts will insist this is just manipulative rubbish.

But with more than a half-hour still to go, it becomes clear how effectively the film has been playing with viewer sympathies. Increasingly, Hayley comes off as a possibly demented and delusional bitch, a very intelligent and articulate one, to be sure, and quite an expert with ropes and knots. And one is inclined to give the benefit of the doubt to Jeff, whose protests seem plausible and degree of victimization extreme.

But things flip and flop more than once thereafter, and by pic’s end it’s difficult not to ponder the serious questions of physical abuse Hayley has raised, even if they seemed like specious rationalizations for outrageous cinematic torture during a good deal of the running time.

Although the film’s design elements, from the elegant decor and arresting lateral scene transitions bathed in red to the infectious musical selections, are striking if trendy, “Hard Candy” is memorable most of all for Page, a Halifax, Nova Scotia thesp said to have been 15 when pic was shot. Self-possessed to an astonishing degree, both as an actress and as the character, Page handles her enormous load of dialogue with adult-sized portions of emotion, insinuation and driving rage, not to mention an appreciation of sexual dynamics and consequences that repeatedly astonishes. The actress will be in great demand as soon as Hollywood sees this, if she isn’t already.

Wilson, currently onscreen as the courtly benefactor in “The Phantom of the Opera,” spends most of the picture unbecomingly sweaty and hog-tied, but is entirely convincing as the smooth-talking photog.

Aesthetically and in terms of subject matter and the frank presentation of an acutely sexualized young teenage girl, “Hard Candy” feels much more like a European film than an American one, despite the Yank characters and Hollywood location. Whether it’s Eurotrash or Eurosmart will be a matter of opinion.

Hard Candy

Production

A Lions Gate Films release of a Vulcan Prods. presentation in association with Launchpad Prods. Produced by David W. Higgins, Richard Hutton, Michael Caldwell. Executive producers, Jody Patton, Rosanne Korenberg. Co-producers, Brian Nelson, Hans Ritter. Directed by David Slade. Screenplay, Brian Nelson.

Crew

Camera (CFI color/Technicolor, Panavision widescreen), Jo Willems; editor, Art Jones; music, Molly Nyman, Harry Esscott; music supervisor, Hans Ritter; production designer, Jeremy Reed; art director, Felicity Nove; set decorator, Kathryn Holliday; costume designer, Jennifer Johnson; sound (Dolby Digital), Dennis Grzesik; re-recording mixer, Patrick Giraudi; supervising sound editors, Richard Taylor, Stuart Martin; associate producers, Erica Farjo, Barney Jeffrey; assistant director, Barry Wasserman; casting, Valerie McCaffrey. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Midnight), Jan. 25, 2005. Running time: 103 MIN.

With

Jeff Kohlver - Patrick Wilson Hayley Stark - Ellen Page Judy Tokuda - Sandra Oh Janelle Rogers - Jennifer Holmes Nighthawks Clerk - Gilbert John

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