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No kidding 

Halifax actor Ellen Page is not your average starlet, choosing quality projects over cheap and easy fame. In the new two-hander Hard Candy, she uses a scalpel to teach a pedophile an important lesson, carving herself a respectable rep in the process.

If Ellen Page’s new movie Hard Candy was transformed into a sugary confection, it would be one of those giant sour balls that you must commit to before putting in your mouth. When Hard Candy premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah last January, Ugg boots stormed out of the theatre, spreading anger across the ski hills and onto the shuttle buses. According to The Boston Globe, some festival volunteers were warning potential viewers against it, and one post-screening Q&A session turned nasty as a member of the audience stood up and read a list of angry notes he wrote down during the film. The only point that everyone seems to agree on is Page’s superb, attention-grabbing performance.

She plays Hayley, a modern-day Little Red Riding Hood in a crimson hoodie and matching tights. Online, as flirty Thonggrrrrl14, she meets Lensman319, who is Jeff (Patrick Wilson), a fashion photographer. They hook up in “RL” or real life, at Nighthawks Cafe, where they flirt over chocolate pastries and Zadie Smith. Hayley gives Jeff a sneak peak of what’s hiding under the hoodie when she tries on a t-shirt he buys for her. Sounds sweet. Sure. But wait. She’s 14 and he’s 32.

“I get people coming up to me really angry, and I’ve had women come up to me and be really pissed about the movie, but that’s good,” says Page. Arriving from New York (she’s living in Brooklyn with friends), she’s talking from the airport before heading into Toronto for a press day. “They’re not coming up and saying, ‘This plotline’s no good.’ They’re coming up and talking to me as if I was her. That’s great because you’re provoking people. It’s interesting how polarized people’s opinions are on this movie.”

The “date” lasts for a chilling 20 minutes. When Jeff uses his thumb to wipe icing off Hayley’s lip, it’s a truly nauseating cinematic moment. The pair then heads to his Hollywood Hills home/photo studio for some more mild flirtation over vodka and OJ. Cheer Hayley for making a point of mixing her own drink—she at least knows better than to accept something she didn’t pour herself. Then, at that moment, Hard Candy takes a stunning turn: It’s Jeff who is drugged, and wakes up bound and gagged. Hayley’s shy giggles are replaced by the sharp tongue of an avenging Lolita—“it’s just so easy to blame a kid”—who plans to make this pedophile pay. Her weapons of choice: a bag of ice, a medical textbook and a scalpel.

We never learn anything about her life, or why Hayley, an articulate, intelligent girl, seeks revenge, but to Page, who was 17 when the film was shot, that’s really not the point. “For me, the most important thing was to just connect to her heart. For me, she just saw something that was really wrong that was taking place in society that people were ignoring and justifying, and she was going to do something about it. Symbolic-ally, I find that really beautiful.”

Directed by David Slade and shot in a luridly gorgeous colour palette (the beauty of the film increases its chill-o-factor reading to 11) in only 18.5 days, the story was inspired by a series of real-life incidents in Japan, where groups of young girls were luring pedophiles into the “RL” and mugging them. Hard Candy doesn’t take a stand for, or against, young vigilantism, which is perhaps why some Sundancers became so angry, and why Page found the role so appealing.

“There’s a lack of ability for categorization. I really have a lot of respect for that because it’s a lot easier just to feed people answers and the film doesn’t do that. It’s great to have two characters in a film—from what I hear from most people is that their sympathies shifted a lot. Life’s not cut and dry,” she says.

It’s a teeter-tottering perspective that is in some ways reminiscent of the 1991 road-warrior film Thelma and Louise, which divided opinions down the middle of the bed, depending on one’s view of the law and how it protects working-class women. Like Thelma and Louise’s controversial suicidal ending, the bulk of Hard Candy’s tension is created by suggestion, although there are a few physically violent scenes, a first for Page. “I really enjoyed it. David Slade”—whom she calls an open, caring and sensitive human being—“and me, before we started shooting, we watched these realistic, animalistic violent Polish films. There’s actually not that much violence in the film, but when there is, it’s very intimate, and I really liked that.”

Yes, there’s the agonizing scene with the bag of ice and scalpel (which Hayley refers to as “preventative maintenance”) that, according to one Sundance rumour, had one gentleman with a vivid imagination down on all fours in the aisle. As a media-saturated nation, we’re sadly accustomed to scenes of sexual violence against women (Page thinks Law & Order: Special Victims Unit should be renamed Naked Women in Dumpsters), but lustful men haven’t had it this bad since Glenn Close got busy boiling bunnies. “It’s pretty unbelievable the amount of violence we see our sex go through,” says Page. “It’s kind of like, ‘Hey, it’s your turn.’”

Perhaps it takes a brave, honest performance from a young Nova Scotian actor for the point to be made, or at least debated afterwards in theatre lobbies and online chat rooms. “I like doing things that reflect a different angle that we don’t often see in the media,” says Page. “There’s a clear image of what a teenage girl should be in the media, that becomes really frustrating and suffocating, and I just like playing roles that don’t play to this annoying cliche that’s been created that’s really unfortunate.”

Ellen Page shouldn’t worry about falling into some commercial teenage stereotype; her young career is anything but typical. Born and raised in Halifax, she first took to the stage at Neptune Theatre School, and at age 10, won the lead and a Gemini nomination for the television series Pit Pony. Like any good Halifax-based actor, there was a stint on Trailer Park Boys, where she played Treena Lahey. But it’s in supporting roles like Andrea Dorfman’s Love That Boy and Daniel MacIvor’s Marion Bridge and Wilby Wonderful where Page’s ability to hold her own alongside the big kids is most apparent.

These days, you can’t write about Page without mentioning her upcoming role in X-Men: The Last Stand as the Kitty Pryde, AKA the leather-suit-clad Shadowcat, to be released in mid-May. Like Jodie Foster, whose role as a young murderess in the 1976 thriller The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane served as inspiration for Page in Hard Candy, she sees the benefits of building a career by mixing intense character studies with films shot under the Hollywood sign.

“To be able to have that versatility is a great, positive thing that enables you to shape the future and enables you to learn about all aspects of filmmaking,” she says. “It’s really interesting to go to those polar opposites and visit them.”

Diplomatic words aside, Page is animated when speaking about her upcoming independent film, The Tracey Fragments, made with Canadian cult-fave director Bruce McDonald. Shot in southwestern Ontario immediately after X-Men, she says, “It was really good for the soul after the big blockbuster—which is totally good, and I had such a good time, and I’m totally grateful for it—but it was nice to go to, literally, literally the exact opposite.”

Based on the novel of the same name by Maureen Medved, 15-year-old Tracey, naked and wrapped in a ratty shower curtain, sits at the back of the bus, telling her bizarre stories, while looking for her brother Sonny, whom she says thinks he is a dog. It’s angry and it’s raw (the book’s first paragraph starts with: “I’m so happy. Have an amazing life. Now I’m going to scratch my eyes out.”), and it’s a perfect role for Page.

“It is one very intense, dark movie, but it’s also very funny. I mean it’s Bruce McDonald! I’m really excited about it, and I had such a good time working with Bruce, and a couple of the other actors. It was such a good time, mind you, extremely, extremely draining experience, but so good, you know.”

At age 19, Page has developed the maturity—which comes across on screen too—to deal with the emotional demands of intense roles, new directors and co-actors. She met Patrick Wilson only days before rehearsals started for Hard Candy. “We developed a sense of understanding and trust and then dove into it.” She was challenged again in last year’s Mouth to Mouth, a semi-autobiographical road trip written and directed by artist and dancer Alison Murray. Page plays a teenager who gets involved in a European street cult, takes acid, loses her virginity and shaves her head (take that, Natalie Portman). “You just learn how to adapt. For me, it’s a necessity to be able to trust the people I’m working with. It’s hard to be extremely open and vulnerable in situations where you don’t trust or haven’t developed a sense of understanding with the people you’re working with. It can be really crappy if you don’t find that.”

Next up for Page: a prospective role in The Basement with indie dynamo Catherine Keener, whom she loves. You may see her in Halifax for a quick trip home between projects—riding her bike, eating a sandwich at Bob & Lori’s or hanging with friends at Doraku—but it’s certain we’ll be seeing a lot more of the talented Miss Page.

Hard Candy opens April 28. See Movie times for details.

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