Synopsis: Ethan longs to escape his small Southern town. He meets a mysterious new girl, Lena. Together, they uncover dark secrets about their respective families, their history and their town. (Source)
More than anything, the Twilight series exposed a legion of young fans and their unquenchable thirst for supernatural teen romance, a genre which most people (myself included) would’ve never given a second thought about until it’s forceful push into the mainstream. Beautiful Creatures, helmed and adapted by Richard LaGravenese from Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl’s book of the same name, is the latest franchise starter hoping to fill the Twilight/Harry Potter-sized void. It’s as if it was created by someone literally taking a checklist of each series’ most marketable elements while mostly fixing the weaknesses of the former (because Harry Potter was pretty great) and coming up with something that thankfully doesn’t take itself too seriously. What you end up with is a film that is infinitely better written than most hollow YA love stories, and has an interesting enough supernatural mythology to get invested in. Because of this, the film is a fun, southern-fried gothic tale which finds a satisfying balance between magic spells, a hidden battle between good and evil, and of course, young love.
Taking place in the fictional Gatlin, South Carolina, the story focuses on the young Ethan Wate (Alden Ehrenreich) and the discontent he feels towards his unremarkable small town and the judgmental, ignorant folk who inhabit it. His enjoyment comes from reading banned books (stuff from Bukowski, Vonnegut, etc) and the hope that one day he’ll be able to go to a college somewhere far away. Then, on his first day of Junior year, he meets a new transfer student named Lena Duchannes (Alice Englert). She’s mysterious and obviously hiding something, and the fact that she’s the niece of a feared recluse makes her an instant target for gossip. After getting off on the wrong foot however, the pair form a real bond, finding in each other the things they’ve been longing for. Then things get tricky when it’s revealed that Lena is a caster (a sassy name for witch), whose powers will soon be claimed for either the light or the dark once she reaches her upcoming 16th birthday. With Lena and her family fearing that she’ll be turned to evil as her sister was, the star-crossed lovers race against time in order to challenge fate, preserve a future for each other and learn about their families’ deep, interconnected pasts.
While there are admittedly portions of the film which are just one step away from a CW show, there’s something to be said about the way it at least manages to transform the film’s central romance into something other than empty sexual tension, dead awkward stares and the need to see it’s leads get that first kiss. The film gets the latter over with real quick and gets interesting when it weaves it’s supernatural mythology around the central characters’ romance as a way to explore the virtue of sacrifice and the importance of choosing our own paths no matter how difficult or scary they may seem. There’s also a nice family dynamic with Lena’s eccentric family, as different factions attempt to sway her towards the light or the dark. The film gives these nice moments urgency while poking fun at their generic conventions and remaining sincere without devolving into parody. Since it’s supernatural foundation is grounded in familial drama and colorful characters, the pieces fall together in a fun way, throwing in everything from possessions, supernatural scuffles, murder and even a hokey Civil War reenactment.
Considering the story’s slightly uneven appeal, it’s the film’s interesting characters and the way they’re brought to life by a charming cast that make the story engaging from start to finish. For starters, Adam Ehrenreich’s Ethan has a genuine innocence which makes him really down to earth and relatable while his character is a nice gateway into the film’s supernatural world. The way the story is centered around him pursuing the girl is a also nice break from tradition (we usually only see this convention in more masculine genres or screwball comedies). And while Alice Englert’s Lena starts out to be the stock, dark and sullen character you expect her to be, she quickly becomes the strength of the romantic pair, a trait that gives the obligatory climactic “break-up” trope an unexpected spin which ties up their thematic arc in a meaningful and suspenseful way. It’s a testament to Englert that she shows more maturity and range than the film’s rushed plot may allow. In the end, their story is about embracing both the good and bad in human nature, giving their relationship something worth rooting for. Filling out the story’s universe is Lena’s family, wonderfully realized by incredible actors who are having a bit of fun. As the town’s feared Macon Ravenwood, Jeremy Irons’ patriarchal gravitas is much welcomed. His backstory as a turned dark caster trying to make sure that his niece doesn’t follow suit elicits the right amount of camp and weight. Emma Thompson’s villainous Sarafine on the other hand, enjoys playing with the dark side, straddling the line between being nurturing yet malevolent glee. Viola Davis’ neutral seer Amma is as kind and concerned as you’d expect from her and she offers a nice center ground for the proceedings. By far the actor/character bringing the camp here is Emmy Rossum as Lena’s sister Ridley. She has the most ridiculous scenes of the film, but they’re too funny to hate and thematic juxtaposition makes sense.
All in all, Beautiful Creatures won’t go down as a monumental film, but it’s really not a terrible one either. It knows exactly what it wants to accomplish, does it well and knows it’s limitations while using them it’s advantage. And though it’s darker qualities may be watered down by it’s tween-ish romance, it’s nice to have characters bonding over Bukowski instead of blind lust, even if it’s just a polite thematic gesture. Plenty of witchery, check; family drama, check; teenage love, check. Apparently, lighting can strike in this genre when the story has something to say and people who know how to tell it in an entertaining and meaningful way. If you’re into fantasy stories, give this one a chance.
Crome Rating: 3.5/5