Directed by Richard LaGravenese. Starring Alden Ehrenreich, Alice Englert, Jeremy Irons, Viola Davis, Emmy Rossum, Emma Thompson, Eileen Atkins, Margo Martindale, Zoey Deutch, Thomas Mann, Pruitt Taylor Vince. (2013, PG-13, 124 min.)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Feb. 15, 2013
Beautiful Creatures is a fascinating amalgam that demonstrates that a movie can be smart and dumb at the same time. Its blend of Southern Gothic and supernatural teen love story makes the movie a strange creature, indeed – it’s as if some paranormal activities were dropped onto a set created by William Faulkner or Flannery O’Connor and then mixed with heavy doses of teenage libido and magical hokum. The film seems to have a keen awareness of what it is doing while also fully succumbing to the dopiness of its storyline about the forbidden love between a mortal and a witch – or a “caster,” as they prefer to be called here.
Clearly, Beautiful Creatures is aiming to fill the void left in the world following the conclusions of the Twilight and Harry Potter film series. Fantasy fans needing to sink their teeth into something new could do worse than this film adaptation of the first book of Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl’s Caster Chronicles. Richard LaGravenese (who will always be best known as The Fisher King screenwriter, but has also penned such notable screen adaptations as The Bridges of Madison County and Beloved before branching out into directing) wrote the Beautiful Creatures screenplay and directed the film. From reading a synopsis of the novel, it appears that LaGravenese has condensed many aspects of the story and characters and created a solid foundation for future sequels. An impressive cast and the warm imagery of expert cinematographer Philippe Rousselot clinch the deal.
The story is set in the fictional small town of Gatlin, S.C. – a community with 12 churches and no Starbucks, as we’re told by the story’s narrator, Ethan Wate (Ehrenreich, who’s a little too old to plausibly play a high-schooler, but has enough swagger and appeal to keep us interested). He’s an inveterate reader, partial to banned books like Slaughterhouse-Five and Tropic of Cancer, which makes him distinct from his bible-thumping classmates even though his easy charm sustains his popularity. Ethan dreams of a girl whom he’s never met, and then one day she walks into his classroom as a transfer student. Lena Duchannes (Englert – who happens to be the daughter of Jane Campion) lives at the decaying Ravenwood mansion with her mysterious Uncle Macon (Irons), where the townspeople suspect devil worship and other blasphemous things take place. Indeed, Lena is a caster, but this interspecies love story is then larded with lots of supernatural detail about Lena’s approaching 16th birthday, the day on which a female caster is claimed for good or evil – for evermore. Cousin Ridley (Rossum) and Lena’s mom, Serafine, (Thompson, who plays two roles in the film and devours them both with great brio), are the examples of casters gone evil. The thick but dodgy Southern accents heard throughout are especially delicious coming from the mouths of the film’s numerous British actors, with Irons joining Thompson in the all-out camp. And, before I forget, there’s also the annual Civil War battle reenactment that happens to occur on Lena’s 16th birthday.
Yet, for all its magical nonsense and overstuffed lore, Beautiful Creatures is also a simple story about kids who just want to be normal teenagers in love. There’s also the film’s strong broadsides against banning books and bigoted Christians – these kids quote Charles Bukowski, for Chrissakes. Yes, Beautiful Creatures proves that dense and dopey can coexist.