Director : Richard LaGravenese
Screenplay : Richard LaGravenese (based on the novel by Kami Garcia & Margaret Stohl)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2013
Stars : Alden Ehrenreich (Ethan Wate), Alice Englert (Lena Duchannes), Jeremy Irons (Macon Ravenwood), Viola Davis (Amma), Emmy Rossum (Ridley Duchannes), Thomas Mann (Link), Emma Thompson (Mrs. Lincoln / Sarafine), Eileen Atkins (Gramma), Margo Martindale (Aunt Del), Zoey Deutch (Emily Asher), Tiffany Boone (Savannah Snow), Rachel Brosnahan (Genevieve Duchannes), Kyle Gallner (Larkin Ravenwood), Pruitt Taylor Vince (Mr. Lee), Robin Skye (Mrs. Hester), Randy Redd (Reverend Stephens)
Clearly designed and executed to fill the supernatural adolescent romance void left in the wake of the seemingly interminable Twilight series’ final installment(s), Beautiful Creatures offers a gender-reversed take on a very similar storyline and inserts witches and warlocks (or “casters,” as they prefer to be called) in place of vampires. It is still, at heart, a sudsy evocation of star-crossed teen romance imperiled by the inherent problems of mortals getting amorous with supernatural beings, a narrative that is at least as old as the myths of ancient Greece.
Ancient Greece, however, is far cry from Gatlin, South Carolina, the swampy setting of the first book in the “Caster Chronicles,” the young adult series by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl on which writer/director Richard LaGravenese based the film. Gatlin is the epitome of small-town Southern seclusion, especially as viewed through the narrow lens of Hollywood snark that unproblematically equates “Southern” and “backwards.” Gatlin is chock-full of twanging, Bible-beating Christian fundamentalists who think reading To Kill a Mockingbird constitutes a sin and favor annual Civil War re-enactments over any other form of cultural activity.
Trapped in this bog of intellectual deprivation is Ethan Wate (Alden Ehrenreich), a too-smart-and-sophisticated-for-his-own-good high school junior who has recently lost his mom in a car accident and buries himself in banned literature by the likes of Kurt Vonnegut and Henry Miller. Having recently broken it off with his pretty but narrow-minded girlfriend Emily (Zoey Deutch), Ethan finds himself drawn to Lena Duchannes (Alice Englert), a dark-haired 15-year-old who has just moved to town under mysterious circumstances and taken up residence with her eccentric, wealthy, and reclusive uncle, Macon Ravenwood (Jeremy Irons). Lena is shunned by everyone in town because she and Macon and their entire extended family are suspected of being Satanists, especially by Mrs. Lincoln (Emma Thompson), who would give Carrie White’s mother a run for her money in the loony-religious-fanatic department.
Lena has her reasons for steering clear of her peers, particularly Ethan, who is fascinated by her and wants to be her friend (and more) even though she openly rejects him at every turn. Yet, he turns out to be just a little too persistent, charming, and beguiling in his open-faced earnestness, and soon they are an item, much to the consternation of both the preachy town gossips and Macon, who wants to keep Lena as isolated as he is. It all has to do with a lot of hooey about curses and something called “The Claiming,” in which Lena’s 16th birthday will determine whether or not she joins the light or the dark side of the force that animates her family’s magical abilities. Flitting around the edges of the central story are a number of secondary characters who are eventually revealed to have connections to the underground magical happenings, including Amma (Viola Davis), the woman who has become a surrogate mother to Ethan, and Ridley (Emmy Rossum), Lena’s hypersexualized cousin who zooms into town in a fiery red BMW.
In its own campy way, Beautiful Creatures is entertaining and even kind of fun, although I suspect that this is not the enjoyment factor always intended by LaGravenese, whose career as a writer has centered largely on adapting stories of wistful romance like The Bridges of Madison County (1995), P.S. I Love You (2007), and Water for Elephants (2011). Yet, at the same time, we have to remember that LaGravenese is also responsible for penning Terry Gilliam’s offbeat fantasy The Fisher King (1991) and Jonathan Demme’s Beloved (1998), so there is arguably more here than meets the eye.
There is certainly an intentionally camp aspect to the proceedings, particularly the way Irons plays up Macon’s drawling dandyisms (at times he feels like he’s simultaneously channeling Oscar Wilde and John Huston’s Chinatown villain Noah Cross), Emma Thompson’s over-the-top switch from pursued-lip repressive to swishing villainess, and Emmy Rossum’s lip-curling witch-bitchery. And the lampooning of small town Southern conformity is so hit-the-barn broad that it must surely be intended for laughs, not serious social satire. But then the center of the film—the supernaturally threatened romance between Ethan and Lena—is played so straight and with such earnest melodrama that we feel like we should to be moved to tears amid the giggles. When they engage in a passionate kiss and lightening strikes the sign behind them and sets it on fire, is LaGravenese trying to give us a passionate literalization of amour fou, or is he just being cheeky? It’s hard to tell, and therein lies the film’s real failing. While the studio executives who greenlit this production hoped to Twilight franchise magic again, I have the sneaking suspicious that this will be a one and done.
Copyright ©2013 James Kendrick
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