Had they ended 20 minutes in, Wedding Crashers would qualify as a gut-busting triumph, and Hard Candy would be a miniature masterpiece. Unfortunately, both films linger on well past the 90-minute mark, which allows Crashers ample time to devolve into a lame Meet The Parents knockoff, and affords Candy the opportunity to blow its mesmerizing beginning en route to becoming a superficial wallow in the depths of human nastiness. But oh, those first 20 minutes!

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In a potentially star-making performance, the boyish Ellen Page portrays a fiercely intelligent 14-year-old who hooks up with smooth-talking photographer Patrick Wilson at a local coffee shop after an extended online flirtation. In his opening banter with Page, Wilson alternates between playing the vaguely paternal, law-abiding Big Brother and the leering, voyeuristic pervert, just as Page switches between hyper-verbal, ragingly precocious maturity and girlish bursts of inarticulacy. At its best, Hard Candy captures with unnerving accuracy the queasy mating dance of strangers trying to impress each other without blowing their cool or seeming overeager. Director David Slade gradually ramps up the awkwardness and tension that characterize so many first dates to nearly unbearable levels. So it's almost a relief when the film's anticlimactic twist arrives, and the tension immediately dissipates.

Page conveys real depth and complexity in Hard Candy's opening scenes, delivering the most unnerving portrayal of a high-school sociopath this side of Evan Rachel Wood in Pretty Persuasion. Then the twist comes and the plot doesn't thicken so much as congeal into a brutal, simple-minded story of revenge dolled up with thematic window-dressing about morality and the nature of vengeance. As Hard Candy moves further and further away from its opening scenes' gripping ambiguity, the frightening conviction Page brings to her role becomes the only thing keeping the film from lurching into sleazy, pulpy camp. Even when betrayed by the script, Page is never less than convincing. It's too bad her fine work is in the service of a film that grows unworthy of her performance.