'Beautiful Creatures' aims to charm teen moviegoers
By Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
Moviegoing teens of America, are you ready to trade up? Now that the "Twilight" series has come to an end (that exhalation you just heard was pretty much every movie critic in America sighing, "Thank God!") and it's likely to be quite some while before an unofficial and very nasty iteration of Edward and Bella appear in a "Fifty Shades of Grey" movie (which is likely to make movie critics unhappy all over again), there's a new supernaturally implicated pair of young lovers headed to the multiplex. The leads of "Beautiful Creatures" are brainy, rebellious, tired-of-this-town mortal high schooler Ethan (Alden Ehrenreich) and withdrawn, edgy, new-in-the-town-Ethan-is-tired-of Lena (Alice Englert). These two have been sharing the same dreams before they meet in class one afternoon. The town Ethan is sick of is Gatlin, S.C., a not entirely updated locale of Southern Gothic where you'd think near-goth-girl Lena would fit right in. Not so much, as she faces so much disapprobation from close-minded reactionary classmates that she almost shows her hand right away, causing a window-shattering calamity at school.
"Are you a witch?" Ethan asks Lena, who's trying her damnedest to deflect his interest in her. Apparently yes and no; according to Lena, "witch" is what we silly mortals unimaginatively call the beings who refer to themselves as "Casters." Just as the "Twilight" series rejiggered (rather idiotically, if you ask me) the mythologies of vampires and werewolves and other supernatural favorites, so does "Beautiful Creatures" -- written and directed by Richard LaGravenese from the first novel in a series by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl -- give us a new vision of witchery that is more playful, coherent and intelligent. If you're thinking a deep-fried, more hormonally charged Harry Potter, that's not it, but it's close to the intention at least.
The plot that coheres around Ethan and Lena is pretty damned convoluted, and "Beautiful Creatures" really needs each of its two hours and four minutes to tell it. It encompasses wacky and not-so wacky Caster relations. Jeremy Irons, in full Karloff-meets-William Faulkner mode, is Lena's understandably protective uncle, and Emmy Rossum is very catty as Lena's dark-side-enveloped cousin. It would probably not be cricket to go into too much detail about the characters played by Emma Thompson and Viola Davis, but the performers both excel at conveying their varied (albeit admittedly showy) facets.
LaGravenese, the veteran screenwriter behind such relatively quirky Hollywood fare as "The Fisher King" and "The Ref," stumbles a little in the first section of the movie, loading his teen characters down with cultural referents that are more pertinent to his (and my) generation than to theirs. While I appreciate the sentiment behind this, it felt forced. Ehrenreich and Englert are appealing and, hence, good at selling it, but the movie doesn't begin to take off until the supernatural element comes in at full force, and it gets even better once the adult characters are let in on the story. It's particularly telling that in the first hour and change, the strongest scene is a knotty face-off between the characters played by Irons and Thompson. But as the story heads to a climax wherein Lena is set to learn her true nature, and be claimed for light or darkness, the teens come into their own for real, and the metaphorical struggle between the powerful immortals and the romantic humans becomes a breeding ground for some interesting observations on gender difference, as in when one character sneers, "Love's a spell created by mortals to give females something to play with instead of power." You never heard theory like that in any of the "Twilight" movies. And also, the special effects in this are more than marginally better. So teen moviegoers of America, check out "Beautiful Creatures." You have nothing to lose but mouth-breathing slack-jawed wolf boys!
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.