Beautiful Creatures (2013)
Directed by Richard LaGravenese
Ah, teenage love, that magical time when a young boy or girl falls so head over heels in love with an attractive, fervid monster/mutant/supernatural being they fail to realize those arrows are trying to kill the creature they’re crushing on, not Cupid trying to direct them to their soulmate. I personally feel cheated because I never got to experience any of that teenage monster love. I never met that sexy half-human/half-bee girl who buzzed whenever excited, flew me around our small woodland town, and secreted a delicious honey butter I could spread on my toast as we fought to maintain our forbidden romance against disapproving members of her hive and a rival race of shapeshifting hornet people trying to exterminate us all. Where's the Twilight-style movie for those of us looking back on our youth and realizing we never got any good monster lovin'?
Instead I have to live vicariously through movies like Beautiful Creatures, the latest attempt on the part of Hollywood to adapt a young adult novel in hopes of spawning a new Twilight. Down to a small town in the heart of Dixie we go to experience the forbidden romance between an orphaned teenage bookworm with a love for Kurt Vonnegut and Charles Bukowski and a slightly neurotic teenage witch with a love for scribbling her insipid poetry all over her bedroom with magical invisible ink.
I’m sorry. Did I call her a witch? Oops. She and her family are “casters”. Don’t call them witches – that’s insulting to them the way “midget” is to a little person.
Caster, mortal, good, evil: what’s most important is that everyone in this movie isn't just Southern - they're S-O-U-T-H-E-R-N. We're talking whistlin' Dixie, “fiddle-dee-dee”, telling the story of “Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby” while partaking in a refreshing mint julep levels of Southern. If not for the vehicles, modern technology, and racial integration on display, I’d swear Gatlin, South Carolina, was stuck in some pre-1950’s time warp. If the flashback scenes to the Civil War weren’t shot in black & white, I might not have been able to tell the difference between it and the present. It’s that Southern.
Even with racial harmony, poor Viola Davis, fresh off a Best Actress Oscar nomination, still finds herself relegated to the role of “Magical Negro”, as Spike Lee would call it. She may have magical powers, but to the white characters here she’s still just the help.
You know what else setting this film in the former Confederacy means, don’t you? Thick Southern drawls; and nobody quite does over-the-top Southern accents like British thespians. Beautiful Creatures boasts so much campy overacting the only thing the craft services table must have served was scenery, and both Jeremy Irons and Emma Thompson kept going back for seconds.
Thank goodness for that because those entertainingly hammy performances rescue Beautiful Creatures from fully falling into the doldrums of overly serious Twilight emo-tism. The two young leads here are like the anti-Edward and Bella: they’re likable, have real chemistry, and appear to actually be having fun. I’ll gladly take breezy and cheesy over sullen and monotonous from breaking dawn to twilight.
Hick hipster Ethan Wate (Alden Ehrenreich, whose destiny I’m convinced is to star in a Buddy Holly biopic) is the mortal side of this forbidden otherworldly romance. Bored by this hick town he longs to escape, Ethan takes an immediate interest in new girl in school Lena Duchannes (the pleasant Alice Englert), niece of the reclusive Macon Ravenwood (Jeremy Irons, not surprising his performance would be hammy given his character’s name sounds like a brand of pork product). The Ravenwood family founded Gatlin hundreds of years ago and has since been branded Satanists by the town’s overly pious populace. This is why Lena instantly incurs the scorn of the “700 Club” version of Mean Girls that rule the school.
In their defense, if I was in a classroom where two Christian girls accused someone new of being a devil worshiper and began loudly praying for that person's soul only for all of the windows to spontaneously explode, there’s a chance I might be inclined to think maybe they're on to something.
Ethan has been seeing this girl in his dreams for weeks now so he isn’t deterred by superstitious rumor-mongering, spontaneous window explosions, or that her family lives in what looks like an antebellum Addams Family house on the outside and an art deco holodeck on the inside. Lena is different, interesting, especially that numerical tattoo on her hand that changes each day as it counts down to her 16th birthday.
On her supernatural sweet sixteen she will experience what is called "The Claiming”; under the moonlight casters gain full control over their powers and come away either good or evil based on what kind of person they are deep down. Complicating matters for female casters is an unexplained Claiming bylaw that’s really unfair when you think about it. You see, male casters can go dark yet still choose to behave on the side of good. For female casters, once the power is claimed, they're either pure good or pure evil forever, no in between or going back and forth. Thus explaining the ancient saying "Bitches be crazy!"
We're supposed to believe that these casters, who all come across as incredibly human save for their superpowers, cannot relate to or enjoy the company of mere human mortals because they are an entirely different species. A big scene where Ethan gives Lena a speech about what it is to be human, to feel like a human, to act like a human, struck me as needless since this girl comes across more relatable and human-like than Kristen Stewart ever did in any given Twilight flick. No matter how much the story wants us to believe she could turn evil, there’s little dramatic tension to it because Lena comes across as so down-to-earth.
Uncle Macon (Jeremy Irons, owning a castle ain’t cheap, you know?) is determined to prevent Lena from going dark. Her seductively evil cousin Ridley (Emmy Rossum, making the sexy, vampy most out of a minor role) and purely evil mother secretly inhabiting the body of the town’s biggest anti-Ravenwood religious zealot (Emma Thompson, clearly having way too much fun going way over-the-top) are both determined to ensure Lena’s conversion to evil in order to fulfill a caster curse that will allow their kind to conquer the world, somehow. All of it ends up hinging on Lena’s romance with this mortal boy that is either going to be the cause of her going dark, prevent her from going dark, help fulfill the curse, or help break the curse. I lost track of the whole curse thing somewhere along the way. Caster life can be so needlessly convoluted.
Beautiful Creatures' biggest problem is that it plays like an entire season of a CW Network supernatural tweener show crammed into a single two-hour movie. I can almost envision the flustered screenwriter with numbers on his hand counting down how many more pages he had to wrap it all up. The film comes dangerously close to collapsing in on itself when hurry-up mode kicks in around the two thirds mark and we watch several weeks go by in a matter of minutes and pretty much all we witness happen during this crucial time is Lena reading a book. To be fair, it’s a very long book.
This is another instance where either trying to stay faithful to the source material and/or shoehorning in minor characters that float in and out of the picture and plot points get alluded to that matter little to this story but might come into play in further installments nearly derails what is already a rather rickety train.
Most glaring is the third act revelation that Ethan's deceased novelist mom once had a romantic relationship with Macon and knew of their kind. Isn’t this the same Macon Ravenwood who for the entire film we’ve been told doesn’t like being around mortals and desperately strives to keep the existence of casters a secret? Why even toss this tidbit out there if it’s as quickly forgotten about and leads to absolutely nothing? The way this info was so pointlessly volunteered, I began anticipating a shocking climactic reveal that Ethan is Macon's half-caster lovechild. I'm sure they didn't go that route because that would have thrown an incestuous twist into the central romance with Lena. Then again, this is the Deep South - nothin' says lovin' like marryin' a cousin.
As I write this, Beautiful Creatures has already flopped at the box office, killing any prospects for it to become the next big tweener cinematic sensation. Time to add it to the ever-growing discard pile with Blood & Chocolate, Eragon, The Golden Compass, The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising, I Am Number Four, and all the other recent non-starters Hollywood execs hoped would become the next big thing just like that other big thing they tried to emulate. Rather unfortunate since this one is not without some merit.
An enjoyable Southern ham with a glaze of romance, if a little overbaked.
3 out of 5