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‘Hard Candy’ is a dark, riveting treat

Disturbing film has excellent performances by Ellen Page, Patrick Wilson
/ Source: The Associated Press

A 32-year-old man meets a 14-year-old girl on the Internet.

They chat and flirt online for a few weeks before impetuously agreeing to meet at a coffee house, where they chat and flirt some more. In no time, they’re back at his hideaway in the hills for lunchtime screwdrivers and an impromptu photo session.

But who is the predator and who is the prey? The answer changes repeatedly throughout “Hard Candy,” the stunningly tense feature debut from music video director David Slade and longtime TV writer Brian Nelson.

Disturbing? Absolutely. “Hard Candy” is not a film for the weak of heart, both for its subject matter and for the sadistic things these characters say and do as they try to manipulate each other. And because it’s just the two of them sparring within the confines of a minimalist-chic house, the film exudes the taut, claustrophobic intensity of a stage production. There is nowhere to hide.

What truly causes it to burrow within your psyche, though, are the performances, notably from 19-year-old Canadian actress Ellen Page as unlikely seductress Hayley Stark. “Hard Candy” requires an amazing range from her: She must be coquettish and cruel, sometimes in the same instance. She’s in every single scene of a film that is physically and emotionally demanding, and she exhibits astonishing intelligence and confidence. You’ve never heard of her, but between this and the third “X-Men” movie, in which she appears this summer, you will soon.

Patrick Wilson has the less showy of the two roles as fashion photographer Jeff Kohlver, but it’s just as complex. He has the difficult task of trying to gain our sympathy while portraying both sexual deviant and victim, and even at the end we still don’t know with complete certainty which he is.

That may sound like a surprising reaction — theoretically, a story about something as horrific as pedophilia should have no gray area — but “Hard Candy” offers surprises at every turn.

Jeff doesn’t look like the kind of guy who would stalk girls on the Internet under the screen name Lensman319. He’s cute, well-dressed; with his blond hair, blue eyes and stylish thick-rimmed glasses, he looks more like a college campus intellectual.

And Hayley in no way resembles your typical Lolita; the teenager who goes by the online moniker of Thonggrrrrrl14 is not exactly Alicia Silverstone in “The Crush.” Her freckled face, turned-up nose and pixie haircut — not to mention her disarming directness and quick wit — actually make her a bit tomboyish.

You’ll notice we’re being vague about plot. That’s intentional. The less you know about “Hard Candy” before walking in, the better.

We will say this: There is a twist, and it happens within the first half-hour. Whether you accept it — whether it seems physically plausible to you — will dictate whether you can succumb to the entire film.

Not everyone will, and they have a point. To those moviegoers, “Hard Candy” will seem like a gratuitous exercise in cruelty. And admittedly, the fact that Hayley is literally wearing a sweat shirt with a red hood does seem like an obvious allusion.

If you choose to go with it, though, it’s worth it: “Hard Candy” is riveting.