Richard LaGravanese (Novel: Kami Garcia, Margaret Stohl)
Alden Ehrenrich, Alice Englert, Jeremy Irons, Viola Davis, Emmy Rossum, Thomas Mann, Emma Thompson, Eileen Atkins, Margo Martindale
PG-13 for violence, scary images and some sexual material
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If you had told me that this recent burst of tween-centered dramas would churn out some inventive and involving stories, I would have laughed. The Twilight films redefined what sells to young girls at the box office and Beautiful Creatures seemed like it was going to be more of the same. It wasn't.
A bored Southern teen (Alden Ehrenrich) finds himself mixed up in a battle between a God-fearing populace and a family of witches whose ties to the community are strained at best. Ethan Wate has lost his mother and her death has left him desparately hoping to find a way out of his tiny town, where superstition seems to have replaced intelligence in the minds of nearly everyone there. A studious reader and fan of esoteric tomes that the local school system probably prohibits, Ethan longs for a Kerouc-style adventure, but isn't quite sure how to get there. A new girl at school, related to a hermited family of preceived witches, gives him an opportunity to explore a less vacuous relationship in spite of the warnings he receives from his classmates.
The community isn't wrong, Lena Duchannes (Alice Englert) is indeed a witch and in a short 75 days, the magic powers of the universe will claim her for either the good or the bad, determining whether she will support or destroy the mortal world. Egging her towards the evil side are two members of her family who were previously claimed: the sexually dominant Ridley (Emmy Rossum) and the powerful, but cursed Sarafine (Emma Thompson). And although he is a dark witch himself, her uncle Macon (Jeremy Irons) hopes Lena can overcome the century-old curse that has pushed every Duchannes girl away from the light. Mix in Ethan's guardian Amma (Viola Davis) and you have a delightful batch of stellar thespians providing able support.
It may seem needlessly complex, but Richard LaGravanese's literate script parcels out the details sufficiently, easing the audience into the world with little effort and keeping a sense of disbelief in check. And while the supernatural elements of the story will keep its accessibility limited to younger generations, the overriding concepts of love, rebellion and self-determination lay the groundwork for a cross-generational feature.
LaGravanese has had a hit-or-miss career, gaining respect and attention for his screenplay for The Fisher King and later The Bridges of Madison County, but largely turning out easily dismissed romantic seriocomedies like The Ref, The Horse Whisperer and P.S. I Love You. While Beautiful Creatures isn't a return to his Fisher King excellence, it's a satisfying film that entertains the limited audience that would flock to see it.
The film begins with a rather cloying voice-over with Ethan explaining his life in his small hometown. His heavy Southern drawl quickly damages ones impression of the film's ultimate quality, but once we see Ehrenrich in the role and listen to the voice coming directly from his sheepish face, it becomes less distracting and ultimately feels natural to the setting and the character. Ehrenrich is a promising young actor, his performance was Ethan Wate shifting from akward teen to confident adult with ease. Although the unobservant might say that the story centers on Lena's coming of age, Ethan is becoming a man simultaneously and Ehrenrich keeps it interesting.
Englert, on the other hand, seems a bit too distant emotionally for a character whose passions are supposed to be enabling her dark side. She gestures and performs as if she's a self-absorbed, heavily-medicated teen who doesn't know how to enjoy herself. Perhaps Lena's history of being bounced from school to school has informed how Englert portrays her, but when even the most excitable moments seem tempered, it becomes a touch frustrating. Thankfully, she doesn't veer into vacant Kristen Stewart territory, but for this genre, a bit more Jennifer Lawrence-style would have been appreciated.
And this is where the genre struggles. Perpetually being linked to the more successful films of the rising medium (Twilight and The Hunger Games) will quickly lead to disappointment. You can stuff your films full of brilliant actors playing with character quirks that are both cheap and entertaining, but unless you reach a certain emotional peak that demands attention be paid, you'll be considered a failure. Beautiful Creatures doesn't compare favorable with The Hunger Games and I can't help but believe it would be a better film than the Twilight films, but as its own product, it exceeds all expectations.
Amiable leads, superb supporting players and a premise that sounds ludicrous, but ultimately feels organic, make for a wonderful night at the cinema. It may not be everyone's cup of tea, but I'd rather watch a movie as well structured as Beautiful Creatures than any number of Kristen Stewart films combined.
March 29, 2013