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'Hard Candy' leaves Sundance bitterly divided

PARK CITY, Utah -- While the Sundance Film Festival prides itself on showcasing cutting-edge independent cinema, the truth is you can count the films that actually draw blood -- that make people uncomfortable and angry -- on the fingers of one hand.

This year you could count them on one finger. By the middle of last week, David Slade's "Hard Candy" had become the word-of-mouth don't-see buzz movie, sending audiences out of Park City theaters in a distressed rage. During one post-screening Q&A session, a man in the audience stood and, quivering with anger, read off a diatribe from notes he had written during the film. Even the youthful festival volunteers turned against it. "Dude, I saw that thing," warned one ticket taker, overhearing a couple in line discussing whether they should see "Hard Candy." "Stay away. I mean it: Stay away." One publicist -- a man whose job it is to talk up movies -- refused to discuss the film at all.

All this testifies to something the film does right rather than wrong. Based on a script by Brian Nelson, "Hard Candy" begins as a carefree drama about a 32-year-old fashion photographer named Geoff (Patrick Wilson) and a 14-year-old girl named Hayley (Ellen Page). They have met and flirted on the Internet; now they are meeting in real life, or "RL," at a coffee shop in Los Angeles, after which they return to his house in the Hollywood hills. Despite the age difference, they seem evenly matched, with similar tastes in music and a knack for mildly racy banter.

So far, so disturbing. But "Hard Candy" subsequently takes a left turn into an altogether different movie -- one that owes as much to horror and suspense as to social-message melodrama -- and it is that movie that divided audiences. Without giving away too much, I can say that Geoff finds himself in what may be every man's absolute worst-case scenario, while Hayley reveals herself to have many more sides to her character than first suspected.

As the film turns into a battle of wills, it addresses any number of subjects: forbidden desire, social masks, child pornography versus the more "acceptable" grown-up kind, the hazy line between thought and action. Most remarkable is the way "Hard Candy" pushes different buttons for men and women in the audience. The film has an allegorical aspect -- with the exception of Sandra Oh as a nosy neighbor and a few other actors, Wilson and Page (who arrives as an actress of tremendous skill and depth) are the only people onscreen -- and while director Slade doesn't always play fair, he does play for keeps.

There will be further controversy when the film reaches general audiences; this became a certainty after Lions Gate Films Releasing bought distribution rights during the festival for about $4 million. The company intends to release the film sometime in the second half of this year. " 'Hard Candy' will shock many people, but I think that's a good thing," said Tom Ortenberg, president of Lions Gate, in a phone interview during the festival. "It'll make people think: What if this was you, what if this was your daughter, what's wrong and what's right, how far is too far?"

For the director, it was the story's effect on his own beliefs, acknowledged and unacknowledged, that led him to make the film. "I knew when I read the script that it would get ripped apart by some people," said Slade in the course of an interview at his hotel in Park City, "but I knew it was something I had to do. It made me examine my own prejudices as a man and where I draw the line. I found myself so twisted internally, and I also found myself, as every man does, sympathizing with the beast you're not supposed to."

Not everyone reacted so creatively, including the irate viewer at the Q&A. Slade recalled: "He started screaming at me, 'What gives you the right to make this film?' and I thought he was going to attack me. After he ranted, I gave the moral standpoint from my point of view as a filmmaker. I didn't rise to his bait. And the writer explained he had two 14-year-old girls and why he wrote the film in the first place. And then the whole audience burst into applause."

The challenge now is to get an uncategorizable movie to audiences that can appreciate it. "I think we can make it work in a number of markets," said Ortenberg. "We can sell it as a horror film, we can sell it as a female empowerment movie, as a cautionary tale, and also on the strength of two terrific lead performances. We'll be able to draw a parallel with a movie like "Saw," which worked as a horror movie and a thriller but was also a two-character drama where you weren't sure who was zooming whom."

Meanwhile, a mere mention of "Hard Candy" was enough to get people talking on board one of the shuttle buses that endlessly circle Park City depositing festivalgoers at theaters. "Sick, sick, sick," dismissed an older woman with a West Coast tan. "It thought it was fantastic," countered a younger woman with a British accent, "but I still haven't decided whether I liked it." A middle-age man with the look of a film-industry dealmaker appeared ashen as he dismissed the film as "reprehensible." His companion, a woman in an expensive cowboy hat, disagreed and argued that the film was just doing its job. "Everyone should see it," she insisted. "Especially men."

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com.

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