Based on the bestselling novel by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl, Beautiful Creatures is yet another entry into the supernatural teen romance genre that has become all the rage. A New York Times bestseller, which completely evaded this reviewer, the trilogy of novels has become a worldwide phenomenon making it ripe for cinematic adaptation. Gathering together a group of Hollywood heavyweights, the film is directed by Oscar nominee Richard LaGravenese ("The Fisher King") and co-stars Oscar winner/nominees Jeremy Irons, Viola Davis, and Emma Thompson. But the real stars of the film are two newcomers: Alden Ehrenreich who plays Ethan, and Alice Englert (Jane Campion’s daughter) as Lena Duchannes.
Ethan is a seventeen year old who eschews the restrictions of his sleepy little gothic South Carolina town of Gatlin. While he’s dated the cheerleaders and can throw a football with the best of them, he is a little bit nerdy and prefers to keep his nose in the books that his ultra-conservative town has banned. While he longs to leave his town, he is torn between eventually leaving a father so absent from his life we literally never see him, and getting the hell out of dodge.
Things change when the mysterious Lena Duchannes comes to town. The niece of the reclusive Macon Ravenwood (Irons) who never comes out of his massive estate on the outskirts of town, the school mean girls spread the rumor that Lena and her extended family are devil worshipers. While this is not true, Lena’s gloomy personality doesn’t help dismiss the gossip. Nor does it help that she is, in fact, a "Caster" - or in layman’s terms - a witch. (Not that they like being called that.)
Ethan becomes infatuated with Lena and keeps trying to win her over, but her fear of him getting close to her mysterious family makes her shun those advances. But his down-home charm wins her over and soon enough he is invited to meet her uncle. Meanwhile, the town’s main Bible-thumper Mrs. Lincoln (Emma Thompson) is hell-bent on getting Lena out of town, but before you can say Abracadabra, she has been taken over by the spirit of Lena’s dead mother Saraphine. Saraphine chooses Mrs. Lincoln as a body to convince Lena to accept her destiny. What is her destiny you ask? Well, on her sixteenth birthday, her legacy will choose whether she goes to the good side or the bad side. With the male Casters, they can choose the good or the bad. With the female, it is chosen for them. Unless, they can somehow stop the curse. This is what becomes the driving force of the film’s plot.
There’s a lot to like and appreciate here. The best being the two leads who have terrific chemistry and a likeable banter that makes the audience really care for them. (Ehrenreich is a total charmer.) It’s also fun to see Oscar nominees playing these broad gothic characters. Irons finally gets to loosen up and while his character is a bit odd, he’s not the creepster he generally ends up playing. Thompson has a grand old time playing the nutty Jesus-freak Mrs. Lincoln, and then gets to vamp it up when Saraphine takes over. Viola Davis brings some gravitas to a limited role as Ethan’s lifelong caretaker Amma and the key to finding the end to the curse.
The problems fall in more of the script in that there is a lot of information to get out. Things seem to get lost and at a two hour running time, it’s long enough as it is. We hear about Ethan’s father, but we never ever see him. To the point where I wondered what the point in him even being mentioned was. (Perhaps he’s in the sequels.) The Caster mythology is rich and complicated. On paper probably it was probably a bit more understandable. Here, there is scene after scene of rules, new rules, and even more rules. There comes a point where you sort of give up trying to figure it out and you just become a witness rather than a participant in the story. Less is more, and here that might have helped. I was more invested in the love story and how that was going to be affected by Lena’s destiny, than what her devious aunt Ridley (Emmy Rossum) wanted with her.
As directed and written by La Gravenese, there is a great Southern Gothic feel and the dialogue between the two leads is winning. There are quite a few gems in there and some pointed philosophies, but it gets bogged down in the mythos. La Gravenese keeps things moving though, so the film is never boring, even when the second act gets a bit sluggish with back and forth "I need you"/"Go away or I’ll hurt you" stuff. Special effects are fine, if not a bit overly CGI, and costume design by Jeffrey Kurland ("Inception") is endlessly entertaining.
It’s unclear whether this tale of preternatural goings-on will appeal to those who haven’t read the books or fall the way of "I Am Number Four" which was also a popular novel, but failed to catch on as a film. Time will tell if we will be seeing parts two and three of Lena and Ethan’s love story play out. And how the fight between her good side and bad will define their destinies.