Title: Beautiful Creatures
Year: 2013
Genre: Drama, Fantasy, Romance
Play time: 2h 4min
Director: Richard LaGravenese
Screenwriters: Richard LaGravenese
Starring: Alice Englert, Viola Davis, Emma Thompson

It’s Twilight with the sexes reversed, yes, but if Beautiful Creatures becomes a four-sequel, screaming-tween-assault phenomenon I’ll at least be able to understand it, if not quite buy in. Things stay pretty chaste here, but at least there’s no weird crypto-Christian abstinence metaphor; the lead heartthrob isn’t a po-faced bore but is articulate and charming and has opinions about things; the screenplay, by old hand Richard LaGravanese (who also directed) is occasionally witty and has something on its mind. And that’s not even to mention the presence of Jeremy Irons, Emma Thompson, Viola Davis, and Margo Martindale, in roles that let them (or Irons and Thompson, at least) off the leash in Hamville. If I have to sit through movies aimed at the 13-year-old girl demographic it could be, and has been, significantly worse.

In fact, the first 45 minutes or so of Beautiful Creatures are pretty splendid, giving us a protagonist with a discernible personality and putting him in a milieu (racist, fundamentalist, Confederate-Flag-waving South Carolina) where we can root for him unabashedly.  Restless, hyper-literate jock Ethan Wate is played by Alden Ehrenreich (Tetro and the upcoming Stoker) with a lack of self-consciousness and a breezy charisma that’s leagues outside the range of any of the Twilight hunks; there is (for example) a shot of him singing along somewhat embarrassingly to an upbeat blues number on the radio while driving home in the rain that’s strikingly vulnerable for a character like this, in a movie like this. He is at once enviable (“Fitting in everywhere; drooling charm,” another character half-disgustedly observes) and likable; a difficult and crucial combination.

The story involves Ethan falling in love with a gothy, mysterious outcast named Lena (Alice Englert) who turns out to be among a race of witches called “casters,” with a nasty and dangerous family that wants to claim her for the dark side, or something. Before all that nonsense gets going, though, the two have crackerjack chemistry as a pair of smart kids capable of wickedly acid banter doubling as courtship. (“I bet you dated one of them,” Lena tells Ethan, correctly, after he slags the Christian beauty queens that gave her a hard time.) And there are some good laughs in the scenes where Ethan meets Lena’s uncle (Irons); a few surprisingly charged moments, too, like when the uncle attempts to scare Ethan away by showing him a future where he’s stuck forever in South Carolina, selling used cars, having some dumbass kids, and dying.

Then the plot kicks off in earnest, with “casters” and curses and prophecies and spells and ancient libraries and shape-shifting tattoos and light and dark and so forth. It’s complete arbitrary nonsense, and it shackles the otherwise game LaGravanese, who’s forced to back-bench the offbeat human dimension of the first act while our two lovebirds brood and confess their love and supporting characters recite pointless exposition. He does still manage to insert an occasional burst of personality (there’s a Jeremy Irons line delivery that’s the equivalent of the shark suddenly chomping on Samuel L. Jackson in Deep Blue Sea), and the scenery-chewing by the veterans never quite gets old, but I don’t know if I’ve ever seen another movie whose raison d’etre works against it so stubbornly.

What ultimately earns Beautiful Creatures its pass, I think, is that it’s fundamentally an earnest call for education and worldliness and open-heartedness – a plea for its target audience to read better books than Beautiful Creatures.  If it’s between this genuine if hamstrung attempt at an engaging teen romance and that repulsive vampire creepfest, I’ll watch the former on a loop.

Eugene Novikov

Seeking in movies meaning and reflection in real-time. On the look out for biography, thriller & drama best pieces.

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