By all accounts, authors Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl have fashioned a more literate set of romantic teen stories, beginning with Beautiful Creatures, that traffic in the tried-and-true world of forbidden love between mortals and supernatural beings. This isn’t another Twilight fantasy about new age vegan vampires who, thanks to their glowing glittery skin, can walk around in daylight and have rabidly explosive sex once their chastity belts are removed. The otherworldly creatures here are witches, referred to as casters, pledged by their 16th birthdays either to the Light or the Dark.
Beautiful Creatures, in an attempt to divorce itself from the Twilight world of wan gothic angst, could have ventured in the direction of Bryan Singer’s X-Men and it is likely that no one would have minded much. The whole conception of teenage-onset unique abilities and the context of those with powers being ostracized by the greater community would have been a snug fit, which would have meant a serious tone befitting the parallels that Singer (and the Marvel Comics source material from the 1970s) drew to the Civil Rights era dichotomy between Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.
Thankfully, though, Richard LaGravenese (who wrote the screenplay for The Fisher King and Beloved before settling for more conventional projects like Freedom Writers and P.S. I Love You) traded all that in, instead focusing on making the budding romance between the witchy new-girl-in-town Lena (Alice Englert) and the bookish romantic Ethan (Alden Ehrenreich), which blossoms in unexpected ways. The two are such standard types — she’s moody and prone to startlingly uncontrolled displays of her power, while he’s a lover of banned books with a father who remains off-camera, mourning the loss of his wife — their cute meeting in the middle of the road during a rainstorm would barely register, if not for the engaging earnestness and overly eager fumbling of Ethan.
At the center of it all, LaGravenese never forgets that these are kids experiencing first love, which can seem supernatural and downright frightening all by itself. Ethan is immediately hooked and a bit of a throwback with his Southern manners and longings to truly experience things beyond his current station in life. He is a character straight out of one of those banned novels he’s in love with, but he, like many of those protagonists, doesn’t see himself as some sort of post-ironic figure. And once Lena, the far more modern creature here, gets past her reluctance to his gee-whiz attitude, she succumbs wholeheartedly to his charms, which opens the door for willing audiences to do the same.
Is it possible, though, to fall for Ehrenreich’s Ethan, who exudes none of the deathly swoony pallor of Robert Pattinson? Ehrenreich, with his too-thick Southern drawl, is goofy, a bit of a puppy, but it is obvious that, one day, he could be one of the big dogs with his wide jaw and classic features. The best of the old heartthrobs got their starts in scrappy scene stealing turns on stage and screens, big and small. I have to say that he caught my attention, even moreso than in Francis Ford Coppola’s Tetro, where he played a variation on this theme to dramatic effect. What works for him is his playful energy that allows us to see humor in situations where the joke-to-punch line setup isn’t necessary.
It also helps that he’s comfortable holding his own with co-stars like Jeremy Irons, Viola Davis and Emma Thompson who get to nibble away at the expensive set pieces like ravenous guests at a swanky cocktail party. The thing is Ehrenreich stands there like he’s the life of the party, which is exactly what he becomes.
Beautiful Creatures aims to share the spotlight with The Hunger Games as the next great tween/teen literary-to-screen franchise, but it’s taking a much more modest approach to the game, seeming to rely on quiet word of mouth from fans of the books (with Beautiful Darkness, Beautiful Chaos and Beautiful Redemption to follow). LaGravenese serves the series well by introducing the characters boldly and laying out a broad network of shared histories among families and characters without tying up the loose ends. Even casually attentive viewers, or those like me who haven’t picked up the books yet, will walk out of theaters with some idea of where the next installment will go and a willingness to tag along. Now that’s a beautifully quaint notion because it speaks to the magic that movies used to have before all of the special effects. (PG-13)
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