Dir: David Slade. US.2005. 103mins.

Whip-crackingly tautpsychological drama Hard Candy is the most talked about movie atSundance this year and one of the most riveting directorial debuts seen at thefestival in a few years. A two-hander in which a teenage girl turns the tableson the paedophile who has picked her up on the internet, it will certainlycause a stir in the media wherever it opens throughout the world and, asinitial reaction in Park City is indicating, it will provoke adult audiencesinto a flurry of discussion and debate that will set word-of-mouth on fire.

It's the feature directorial debutof British commercials and music video director David Slade, who so superblysustains the tension between the two protagonists by ingenious use ofclose-ups, sets, a specific colour palette and perfectly precise camerawork(care of cinematographer Jo Willems) that he delivers a sub-$1m film with theimpact of one that might have cost tens of millions more.

Disturbing and discomfitingthought it may be, Hard Candy is also as compelling as any thriller andit's no wonder distributors were swarming all over it at its midnight screeningworld premiere last Sunday. After foreign buyers Redbus (UK), Aurum (Spain) andIcon (Australia) sealed pricey territorial deals, sales representatives WilliamMorris Independent and Traction Media closed a $4m deal for the rest of theworld with Lions Gate.

As the leading independentdistributor in North America, Lions Gate is probably the perfect home for thefilm. It is unlikely that any studio or specialised division would feelcomfortable bringing such a provocative title into their conservative corporatefolds.

Not that Slade andscreenwriter Brian Nelson have included any graphic elements that will generateprohibitive ratings around the world. Although there are passages of intensepsychological violence, the film should comfortably achieve an R rating in theUS and equivalent certificates in international markets.

For Slade's tightly-coileddrama to work, he had to score two remarkable actors to play his lead roles anddid so in Patrick Wilson (The Phantom Of The Opera, The Alamo,TV's Angels In America) and Canadian newcomer Ellen Page.

Page is an intelligent,charming, tomboyish 14 year-old called Hayley who finally agrees one morning tomeet Jeff, a guy she's met on the internet, in a coffee shop in Los Angeles. Heis a handsome 32-year-old fashion photographer who treats her as an adult andflatters her. She suggests they go to his house to listen to some music.

Once at the house, a hipmodern pad in the Hollywood Hills, she continues to flirt with him, mixes himdrinks and starts stripping off some clothes so he can take pictures of her.But when he picks up his camera, Jeff starts to feel faint and passes out.

When he wakes up, he is tiedto a chair. Hayley is searching his house for evidence that he is a paedophile,that she is not the first girl he has brought home and that he has something todo with the recent disappearance of Donna Mauer, another teenager who frequentedthe same coffee shop.

As Hayley continues to tauntand antagonize her helpless prisoner, audience sympathy for her starts towaver, especially when she starts preparing the equipment needed for castratinghim.

By the extraordinaryclimactic showdown between Hayley and Jeff, Slade has thoroughly confused anyconventional morality or notion of right and wrong and specialised audienceswill be haunted by the maelstrom of emotions they have been put through.

For Vulcan Productions, thePaul Allen-owned, Seattle-based outfit which financed Hard Candy, thefilm represents the first to emerge from a new initiative into low budgetpictures after sporadic success with higher budget pictures like Titus, FarFrom Heaven and The Safety Of Objects. So far, so good.

Prod cos: Vulcan Productions, Launchpad Productions
US dist:
Lions Gate Films
Int'l sales:
Lions Gate FilmsInternational, excluding Redbus (UK), Aurum (Spain), Icon (Australia)
Exec prods:
Jody Patton, RosanneKorenberg
David W Higgins, RichardHutton & Michael Caldwell
Brian Nelson
Jo Willems
Prod des:
Jeremy Reed
Art Jones
Main cast:
Patrick Wilson, EllenPage, Sandra Oh, Jennifer Holmes