A new movie has been making grown men faint in cinema foyers (it happened, apparently, in Los Angeles), while others have retreated, eyes watering and hands cupped protectively over their nether regions. Hard Candy tells what happens when a 32-year-old man picks up a 14-year-old girl in an internet chatroom, and she agrees to go to his place. What transpires is not quite as straightforward as that scenario - familiar from news stories - might suggest. Based on similar real-life cases in Japan, where the teenage girl has brought friends to the rendezvous and mugged the would-be seducer - in Hard Candy, the girl, Hayley, spikes the man's drink and turns a paedophilic grooming session on its head.
The film, by the tyro-director-writer partnership of David Slade and Brian Nelson, comes on like Mamet before turning into something more akin to Misery. It's a two-hander, with Patrick Wilson from Angels in America as the clean-cut but secretly sleazy photographer, Jeff, and the 19-year-old Canadian actress Ellen Page, who was 17 at the time, playing the 14-year-old Hayley. "You don't usually come across a 14-year-old girl written so well," says Page, who was asked at her audition which historical figure this vigilante Lolita character reminded her of. "I said Joan of Arc, because she's passionate and strong."
Page stood out a mile from the 300 other hopefuls, says the British-born director, Slade. "You have to understand that I was in a room with hundreds of 15-, 16-, 19-, even 30-year-olds reading for the part, but the girls in LA all seem so sexualised," he says. "These actresses kept going sexy, making Hayley flirtatious. Ellen was just passionate. Not sexy, not sexual, just passionate."
Perhaps St Joan was as small, dark and elfin as Page, whose convincing portrayal as a 14-year-old is crucial to the film. She's also modest to the point of shyness, but Slade, who says she reminds him of Hilary Swank, reckons Page really only turns on when the camera starts rolling. And this is a smart, teasing, almost Grand Guignol performance, with deliberate suggestions of Hannibal Lecter. "A little 14-year-old Hannibal Lecter," says Slade. "A 14-year-old vigilante do-gooder. I'd never seen a version of her on screen before."
Page, however, is uneasy about some of the more comedic aspects of her character: "I've been to screenings where people were laughing all the time, but when we were making the film I didn't feel like it was that funny," she says. "I was just playing this extremely articulate character who is trying to manipulate this man's mind."
Others, though, have been less amused. "Oh, a woman called me a sadist at one film festival. Like it wasn't just a role. You know, Hayley is taking things into her own hands because everyone else turns a blind eye to the way teenage girls can be looked at in a sexual manner. I wouldn't want anyone to take the film literally, but it's beautiful the drive and confidence this character has. Of course she crosses a line. The whole concept of good versus bad is askew in this movie."
Indeed. In its arguably amoral way Hard Candy messes with comfortable notions of where our sympathies should lie in a film, and it's possibly the first movie since Fritz Lang's M where audiences have been left to identify with a potential child murderer. Some American critics, including the Chicago Sun-Times's influential Roger Ebert, have questioned whether any of this was suitable subject-matter for movie entertainment. "I would give the film an admiring review with special mention to the actors," wrote Ebert. "But it isn't that simple. Isn't there a sense in which this film takes away with one hand and gives with the other? While it tells its horrifying parable about paedophilia, isn't it dealing at the same time with sexually charged images some audience members will find appealing?"
Ebert has a point, and the film is eventually what you might call a bit of an "exploiter" - a transgressive, very well made, slasher movie. But then, like many such films, it often charges into places that more "responsible", issue-of-the-week type movies would fear to tread.
Its writer, Brian Nelson, says that it is not designed to deliver a flat, polemic, message. "Yes, child pornography is bad, and that's part of the story, but that's not what people should ultimately be leaving and thinking about," he says. "If you take vengeance, what happens to you? We all have fantasies about what we would like to do to paedophiles but if we actually do those kind of things what kind of person do we become? To what extent is Hayley the protagonist and to what extent is she the antagonist?"
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Anyway, Hard Candy has been doing the rounds of film festivals since its debut at Sundance last year, gradually earning a reputation for its young star. Page returned to her native Halifax, Nova Scotia, and took a year off to finish high school ("sociology and history") and generally "re-balance" herself. None of her family are actors - her father is a graphic designer, her stepmother is a stylist - but Page is something of a showbiz veteran in Canada, having won the leading role in a children's TV series, Pit Pony, at the age of 10. You must wonder what her family back in Halifax thought about her role as a castrating teenage avenger. They certainly weren't there to chaperone her though one of the darkest adolescent roles since Linda Blair did her head-turning, crucifix-wielding performance in The Exorcist. "When I was 12, I realised I was very uncomfortable having my parents on set," explains Page. "So I told them that, and they understood."
In the meantime, her intelligent performance in Hard Candy was noticed by the right people. "I was walking through the park one day and got a call that Bryan Singer was interested in me for an X-Men movie," she says. How those sexualised LA starlets must have been gnashing their perfect little teeth as Page won the part of the leather-clad superhero Kitty Pryde in X-Men: the Last Stand. But just because she has hit the mainstream doesn't mean she's about to go all starry. "My ambition is definitely not to be a star," says Page, whose heroines - Kate Winslet and Samantha Morton - suggest the sort of career she's more interested in. "Not that I make any assumptions about Hollywood - I'll do Hollywood; I want to do all sorts of work."
Her next film, The Tracey Fragments, continues Page's taste for riskier themes. "It opens with a girl naked in the back of a bus, under a shower curtain, explaining, in a non-linear way, how she got there," she says. "It's very dark and so much what I needed after X-Men."
And then what? A rom-com, perhaps, or a Herbie? "Er, no. I'm just about to start filming An American Crime in LA with Catherine Keener. It's based on a true story from 1965 from Indiana, about a girl who was left to stay with this woman and her eight children while her parents went off travelling to a carnival. I play the girl and she gets tortured and, eventually, murdered."
'Hard Candy' opens today
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