Movie Review: Richard LaGravenese’s ‘Beautiful Creatures’

February 14th, 2013

Warner Brothers Pictures

From left, Viola Davis, Alice Englert and Alden Ehrenreich in “Beautiful Creatures.”

The otherworldly inhabitants in “Beautiful Creatures,” a pop Southern Gothic amusement about teenage love and other powerful magic, tend to look fairly average, just paler and more dandified than average folks. Everyone else would call them witches, but they prefer Casters, as in spell casters, probably because the authors of the book on which the movie is based wanted a new name for that old black and white magic. Despite their rebranding, Casters move through a familiar genre world of ghosts, enchantments and honey-dipped accents, with slithering gators, trees shrouded in Spanish moss and lives wreathed in mystery. This being a PG-13 diversion, the bodies come draped too.

“Beautiful Creatures,” its sweet young things and supernatural shenanigans have been marshaled to help fill the box-office void left by the end of the “Harry Potter” and “Twilight” franchises. It’s a void that “The Hunger Games” has already started to fill, partly by tapping into deeply American themes and giving them thrilling female form. “Beautiful Creatures” has been spun from thinner material, despite its strong female characters, nods at the Civil War and a story that turns on good vs. evil, a fight that — as in many young-adult stories — is somewhat mirrored in the struggle between the high school herd and the individual. There’s not much new under the moon here, which makes what the writer and director Richard LaGravenese does with the story all the more notable.

Among the movie’s charms is its button-cute narrator-hero, Ethan Wate (a delightful Alden Ehrenreich), one of those high school boys who sound and act too good to be true, but it’s sure nice to pretend they exist. He’s at once smart and popular, kind and strong, athletic and bookish, innocent and wise to his own heart. (The creators of this fantasy boyfriend are Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl, the authors of “Beautiful Creatures” and its follow-ups.) Ethan even sleeps interestingly, and when the movie opens he’s writhing and dreaming of a mysterious figure whose long streaming locks suggest a Freudian interpretive progression (hair, pubic hair and the non-PG-13 like) and that takes a turn for the safe when his possible dream girl, Lena Duchannes (Alice Englert), abruptly materializes.

“Beautiful Creatures” slowly ignites with the mind-and-body sparks set off when Ethan meets Lena — offspring from seemingly incompatible families, which means it’s kind of like Romeo and Juliet, but, like, you know, happier. Ethan finds himself immediately drawn to Lena when she slinks into school with downcast eyes, a moody mouth and tangle of long, dark hair, which is understandable considering the zombie-Barbies at school, with their mean girl talk and marmalade tans. These are girls, as Barbara Bush would say, who rhyme with witch. Lena, on the other hand, is an actual weird sister, though she’s understandably reluctant to share this news. It’s complicated, after all, what with a curse, some lore and spooky relations, among them Uncle Macon (Jeremy Irons).

With his satiny clothes and silky purr Uncle Macon, or rather Mr. Irons, helps bring the movie to another level by deepening its emotional colors and widening its pleasures. He brings wit, timing and actual acting to the mix, as does Viola Davis, who plays Amma, Ethan’s nanny, and a loosey-goosey and funny Emma Thompson, who goes both light and dark to play separate characters and seems to be having a blast. Ms. Englert and Mr. Ehrenreich are naturally appealing, but when Mr. LaGravenese wants to push the story so that it feels as if something is truly at stake, he calls in the adults. In one of the movie’s most affecting moments he reveals a devastating turn in the story while the camera narrows in on Ms. Davis, using the crumbling landscape of her face to reflect a world falling apart.

There’s more, including cannonball blasts from the Southern past, ancient spirits summoned with love and grits, and some filler. A veteran screenwriter, Mr. LaGravenese has helped adapt a number of heavy and light books for the screen — “A Little Princess,” “The Bridges of Madison County,” “Beloved” — and has largely wrestled this one and its original 500 or so pages down to manageable size. Even so, the movie almost predictably begins to sag in the middle (even with the judicious modifications there’s a lot to cram in) but not tediously so. One scene logically or, more important, given the supernatural material, emotionally, builds on the next as Ethan and Lena’s story opens up ever so slightly when they find that they may be following the same doomed path as two 19th-century lovers.

The idea that Ethan and Lena’s bond is at once uniquely theirs (they share a fondness for Charles Bukowski) and has already been written in the big genre book of love is deftly handled by Mr. LaGravenese. He can’t do much with the Southern part of the story, which is mostly atmospheric, though the ornamental scars on Amma’s back serve as reminders that there’s more to these parts than costume-dress re-creations and adolescent reveries. Ethan sees those scars, but their meaning doesn’t seem to register with him. For Lena and him history is something that flickers to life only vaguely, an idea that’s literalized when they go to the movies and a battle scene from the 19th century runs in front of them like a film. The past may not be dead, but that’s only because it’s entertainment.

“Beautiful Creatures” is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). Some supernatural violence.

Beautiful Creatures

Opens on Thursday nationwide.

Written and directed by Richard LaGravenese, based on the novel by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl; director of photography, Philippe Rousselot; edited by David Moritz; music by Thenewno2; production design by Richard Sherman; costumes by Jeffrey Kurland; produced by Erwin Stoff, Andrew A. Kosove, Broderick Johnson, Molly Mickler Smith and David Valdes; released by Warner Brothers Pictures. Running time: 1 hour 55 minutes.

WITH: Alice Englert (Lena Duchannes), Alden Ehrenreich (Ethan Wate), Viola Davis (Amma), Jeremy Irons (Macon Ravenwood), Emma Thompson (Mrs. Lincoln/Sarafine), Emmy Rossum (Ridley Duchannes), Zoey Deutch (Emily Asher) and Thomas Mann (Link).

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