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MOVIE REVIEW

'Candy' has a taste for psychological terror

''Hard Candy" is an ugly, propulsive piece of provocation that's worth sitting through for the questions it leaves hanging acridly in the air. It's irresponsible, obvious, sadistic, and ham-handed, not to mention possibly the worst date movie ever invented. It isn't even very well made. You might still want to go out of your way to catch it. Few movies open up the chasm between what men want and how women should respond. ''Hard Candy" bashes it open with a sledgehammer.

A lot of the film's shock value depends on the surprises it springs, and since there's no way to review it without giving a number of them away, you should set your spoiler alert on stun if you're planning on seeing it (i.e., stop reading now and come back later).

''Hard Candy" opens with a jauntiness that only slowly turns creepy around the edges, as a reedy mid-30s photographer named Jeff (Patrick Wilson, ''The Phantom of the Opera") meets a confident young woman named Hayley (Ellen Page) at a coffee shop. It turns out they have an Internet thing going on. It also turns out that Hayley is 14. The couple returns to Jeff's house, nervously flirting all the way.

We know what Jeff is expecting because we're dreading the same thing, but neither pedophile nor audience is prepared for what Hayley proceeds to dole out. The girl who claims to be into Zadie Smith and hip music reveals herself as an avenging angel who's been stalking her online stalker. ''You use the same phrases about Goldfrapp that they use on Amazon," she taunts him. ''And by the way, I hate [expletive] Goldfrapp."

Jeff is tied to a chair when Hayley says this, and shortly thereafter ''Hard Candy" turns seriously sick in a manner calculated to send some men bolting for the exits and many women cheering. Let's just say that Hayley doesn't put on surgical scrubs for nothing. The movie doesn't cross the line into explicit horror, though -- brutal psychological head games are more on the agenda. In a sense, director David Slade has fashioned an old-fashioned two-hander; ''Sleuth" for the age of Internet anxiety.

Does Jeff deserve what he gets or does he become a victim at some point? Is Hayley a feminist heroine or a nutjob? ''Was I born a vindictive little bitch or has society made me this way?" she asks rhetorically. ''I go back and forth on that myself." So does the movie, which is its strength: ''Hard Candy" wants us to wonder which is the more warped desire, forbidden sex or blind vengeance, and it asks, too, if there's an acceptable line between keeping unseemly thoughts in our heads and acting upon them. In an age of instant messaging and MySpace pages, this is more than an academic question.

You can tell the movie's been written (Brian Nelson) and directed by men, though. The ironies in ''Hard Candy" are as nuanced as a punch to the kidneys and Hayley is, in the end, a terrifying figure -- the worst nightmare of every guy who's ever glanced twice at an underage girl. Page, a Canadian actress who was 17 when the film was made (and who's featured in the upcoming ''X-Men" movie), responds to the fear written between the lines of her dialogue and exploits it to the fullest, giving Hayley the unyielding certainty of a teenager who knows she's smarter than the world. Love or hate this character, the performance is heroic.

It's a real disappointment, then, that the last scenes tip the scale in Hayley's favor, implying that Jeff is a much worse villain than we thought. The filmmakers take the easy way out, giving us a resolution they think we crave, but that final irony's a cheap one and you come away feeling used. ''Hard Candy" is the rare movie that may be worthiest for the arguments you'll have after it's over.

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

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