Directed by Richard LaGravenese
Screenplay by Richard LaGravenese
Alden Ehrenreich, Alice Englert, Jeremy Irons, Viola Davis, Emmy Rossum, Thomas Mann, Emma Thompson
How long is Beautiful Creatures? 124 minutes.
What is Beautiful Creatures rated? PG-13 for violence, scary images and some sexual material.
My Supernatural Sweet Sixteen
The advertising campaign for Beautiful Creatures was abysmal. The film’s producers and their editors made it look like a secondhand bid for the dollars of weepy tweens still grieving for the end of Breaking Dawn. This is not meant to pillory the Twilight franchise, but to say that this movie looked like something thrown together in haste, which fans of that departed series might like, but which had zero chance of attracting the rest of the viewing public.
Skeptics, be comforted! Remember those enticing teasers for the inept gun drama Killing Them Softly? Fortunately, the principle of false advertising can run both ways. The big secret is that Beautiful Creatures is no melodramatic suicide pact slouching in the shadow of Twilight. It is more akin to HBO’s madcap ghoul opera True Blood, in a version scaled back so that a family could enjoy it together. Scripted and paced with impressive skill and thoughtfulness, this movie manages to be witty, racy, and thoroughly weird without getting crass. Innuendo is such a wonderful spice in the hands of capable writers and actors. Adapted and directed by Richard LaGravenese (P.S., I Love You) from a successful young adult novel by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl, this movie has “sleeper” written all over it.
There is no reason Twilight fans should not enjoy this Beautiful Creatures – they are manifestly the target market – but the real winners are… well, everyone else. People have a right to consume goopy romantic fantasy when they so choose, and Beautiful Creatures answers that need for those who find Edward and Bella’s gloomy, servile approach to adolescence hard to stomach.
Ethan Wate (Alden Ehrenreich) is a bright young man growing stale in Gatlin, South Carolina, an insular Puritanical Bible Belt community where rife ignorance and prejudice virtually guarantee a life of alcoholic sorrow to its best minds. Ethan’s only outlet for self-affirming rebellion is reading the extensive list of books banned from the local school. These are people who consider Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird a dangerously progressive affront to their values (to say nothing of the oft-touted Charles Bukowski). And, as Ethan observes, they reverently re-enact the Civil War as if hoping for a better outcome on their side. Ethan is instantly likable because he intends to get out of Gatlin as soon as he can.
Along comes mysterious dark-haired beauty Lena Duchannes (Alice Englert), who is more or less the Carrie of the village – shunned, feared, and regarded with prejudicial suspicion. She has come to live with her reclusive uncle Macon (Jeremy Irons), whose kin are rumored to be in league with the devil.
Ethan does not hold with these rumors, and in any case he would hardly care, since Lena appears, literally, to be the girl of his dreams. He learns that her family, while strictly diabolical, are a clan of “casters” – which is what witches and sorcerers in this world call themselves – embroiled in a feud over Lena herself. The way of things dictates, basically, that on her approaching sixteenth birthday she will come fully into her powers, and choose to serve either good or evil. Half the family – including her icily genteel mother (Emma Thompson) and vampish cousin (Emily Rossum) – urges her to embrace dark power, corruption, and wanton destruction. Uncle Macon wishes to shelter her and turn her nascent abilities to noble ends. Naturally, budding love between Ethan and Lena proves an immense complication, and a starting point for much magical mayhem.
So in truth, echoes of Twilight, True Blood, and Harry Potter all turn up at intervals, yet the curious success of Beautiful Creatures lies in not taking itself as seriously as any of these. Constant winks of self-awareness keep things light, and the narrative eases gradually into the more ludicrous window dressing – Halloween pageant costumes and spinning dinner tables of magical death – that made the film’s advertisements so unpromising.
Alden Ehrenreich is one of those counterintuitive romantic leads, like Jason Segel or Jay Baruchel, who blunder into charming antics when they least expect it. Ethan’s frequent lack of composure lies not in being a shy geek or an Apatow man-child, but in the self-evident fact that he is perilously stir crazy. Sensitive and literary-minded in a community that condemns both qualities, he longs to break free and seek real-life adventures.
For this reason, he pursues the mysterious Lena without any heed to frequent warnings (even from Lena herself) to stay away. Effectively orphaned and bored stiff with his hometown, from a romantic teenage perspective he has nothing to lose. His tenacity, every bit as much as his kind heart and some convenient twists of fate, is his best hope for wearing her down and winning her heart.
A thousand miles away from Stephenie Meyer’s dour, anguished vision of adolescent sexuality, Beautiful Creatures is playful and campy, giving its characters full freedom to chew scenery and strut antebellum-style. This goes especially for Jeremy Irons, Emma Thompson and Emily Rossum, as the most flamboyant members of the cast. Viola Davis also gets a strong supporting turn as a town librarian and benevolent spirit guide.
Here is something else nice. Satirical but far from anti-religious, Beautiful Creatures allows comfortably for as much or as little faith as one cares to bring to it. The only “religion” it skewers with any malice is the kind against which everyone, including the properly religious, should stand. You know, the sort of folks who use scripture to legitimize their cherished intolerance and cruel stupidity. This is not exactly the type of movie to tackle the diseased mindset of the Westboro/Red State congregation. Imagine instead a broad comical hybrid between the grown-ups in Footloose and the mean ladies in The Help.
At best, this movie may still only sound palatable. The most important thing to understand is that the script is genuinely, consistently funny. Biting mischievous wit is a strong bonding point for Ethan and Lena, making their whirlwind relationship seem not so supernaturally contrived. Despite all its whimsical and outlandish trappings, this movie has a perfectly natural heart and soul underneath.
A key potential pitfall of fantasy, expressly “young adult” or otherwise, is the temptation to make up arbitrary rules to get the heroes out of impossible scrapes. The attention paid to structure in this case is noteworthy. The script takes care to lay ground rules for every trick the casters wield when trouble comes knocking. At just over two hours, the movie runs a bit long, but having been derived from a single, self-contained novel it has the option of going down in history with or without sequels, which is really nice for a change. At its core, Beautiful Creatures is a silly, candy-brained paranormal teen romance. It also happens to be a clever, engaging fairy tale about love, loyalty and sacrifice.