Even though I've been a longtime defender of the Twilight film series (film being the important word) I approached Beautiful Creatures with intense trepidation. We've been flooded with story after story of moody lovers constantly in fear of being wretched apart by mystical forces beyond their control. But there was a weird energy about the trailer that I liked, a sense of humor that seemed warm, and a pair of genuinely likable leads. That nervousness led to an unexpectedly great film, and one that boasts a number of surprisingly fun and effective twists.
I should move forward with a warning for you all. Any film with a protagonist obsessed with either Kurt Vonnegut or Charles Bukowski rarely fails. Toss in some of that luscious South Carolina landscape and so many actors hamming it up with accents from the same and I weaken further by charm. Those of you immune or, worse, annoyed by any of those details may best seek entertainment elsewhere.
For me? I was a pig in slop watching most of the film, and then quietly impressed that a film which started as a seemingly knock-off entertainment boasted a deeper side.
The production design allows for a lot of colorful eccentricities without overwhelming the film. Beautiful Creatures does not open promisingly with a confusing dream sequence narrated by Ethan (Alden Ehrenreich) who has seen a girl in dark waiting for him every night. But when reality, such as it is, kicks in he starts a tentative courtship with the new girl Lena (Alice Englert). The religious types in their school smell a potential victim what with the rumors of her family being a bunch of Satan-worshipping witches, all of which turn out to be true. but still doesn't mean she or Ethan are going to put up with any of them.
Opening stumbling block aside, these two are great characters played with humor and written smart. They aren't wise beyond their years movie smart, just funny teenagers who read a lot and find something in common with each other. Their dialogue, especially in the opening scenes, is often funny (responding to a taunter's poor insult - "Well bless your heart sugar, you must have been first of your litter."), and Ehrenreich and Englert boast wonderful chemistry. Despite all the hocus pocus to come their relationship anchors into a solid, well realized connection not of mutual need, but real love.
Eventually Ethan finds out that Lena can use magic and on her 16th birthday fate will decide if she is going to go dark or embrace the light. Representing both sides is a cadre of performers having a grand time. Chief among them is Jeremy Irons, charming his way as a representative of the good folks, who is relishing the opportunity to display some entertaining flamboyancy instead of intense brooding. His dark counterpart, played by Emmy Rossum, is no less fun to watch but gets to tug at some genuine regret over having her path chosen for her. Beyond these two the cast is so strong that even a personal favorite of mine, Margo Martindale, is relegated to background duty.
None of this would mean as much without the deft hand of screenwriter and director Richard LaGravenese, adapting the novel of the same name by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl, at the helm of the film. He previously worked on a number of fantasy films with directors like Terry Gilliam and LaGravenese has absorbed only the positive qualities. None of the special effects are too intrusive, play according to the needs of the scene, and build to some wonderful emotional moments. My favorite involves a selfless gesture from Lena late in the film who wants to give Ethan something he always yearns for but never gets every Christmas. She makes it snow in the midst of the heat and sunshine, and while the clumps fall to the earth we hear them plop and sizzle as they quickly melt. It’s a beautiful moment, one fueled as much by the effects as the sentiment.
The delicate balance maintains right until the end when all the events of the plot yield a nobler story than I was anticipating. I could see this film (and I have to assume the story) being an especially positive example for young girls. Lena is literally confronted with being the Madonna or the Whore in her future and instead of being forced one way or the other, takes the space to form her own identity. This is a rare enough feat in films geared toward an older crowd that the level of humor and intelligence granted her journey is doubly impressive.
This isn’t to say that the film is perfect. At two hours it runs a bit long, even with parts I enjoyed, and while I adore Viola Davis (she’s easily the best working actress today) I would have liked to see her saddled with a role that let her have a little fun too. Still, there’s enough that’s impressive about the film that even if you can’t relate to a southerner yearning for something a little more that you should be well entertained. If not, there’s always Jeremy Irons cutting that delicious figure.