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Plainly conceived to ensnare teenage viewers who just don’t know what to do with themselves now that the Twilight series is history, Beautiful Creatures will serve as an adequate, if less exotic, substitute.
Based on the first of four Caster Chronicles novels by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl, published in 2009, the story merely flip-flops the sexes, as a small-town high school boy becomes enamored of a girl with strong family ties to the dark side. Nicely cast and made with as much conviction as can be brought to something so intrinsically formulaic, this Warner Bros. release has an large and eager built-in fan base that will pack theaters with gobs of girls and more than a few boys upon its Valentine’s Day opening, with people on both sides naturally hoping that this is the start of something big, franchise-wise.
Told, at least at first, from the point of view of the boy, Ethan Wate (Alden Ehrenreich), this is literally the story of a dream of his come true — a recurring dream of a young woman partly obscured from view on a Civil War battlefield but one in which Ethan always ends up getting hit by lightning. That’s pretty much what Ethan feels like is happening to him when a dark-haired beauty, Lena Duchannes (Alice Englert), arrives at school and gives him something to think about other than applying to college.
No doubt with the target audience in mind, Ethan, whose mother has died and whose father is never seen, has been matured slightly here from the book’s high school sophomore to a 17-year-old with college on his mind. Anxious to escape from stifling, religion-bound Gatlin, S.C., where even To Kill a Mockingbird is banned from the school, Ethan’s devouring Henry Miller, Ayn Rand and Kurt Vonnegut and is turned on to Charles Bukowski by Lena, whose initial frostiness quickly melts when it becomes clear Ethan might become her only ally in a school where the prim, Bible-bound conservatives think she’s a Satanist.
It’s actually a bit more complicated than that. Every story like this needs to invent a mythology intriguing enough to sucker you in, and this one has its roots at Ravenwood Manor, a spooky nearby mansion where recluse Macon Ravenwood (Jeremy Irons), heir to the town’s founding family and still owner of much of the town, hides himself away. Ethan has the guts to sneak in for a look, is greeted in courtly fashion by the elegant Southern gent and soon gets the lowdown: Lena should not become close to Ethan because she’s a Caster, already endowed with the power to harness the elements (she brings the windows of her classroom crashing in on her silly schoolmates). Upon her upcoming 16th birthday, she will be subjected to the Claiming, which will determine whether she is “claimed” by the Light or the Dark.
Macon, who tries to keep his Dark proclivities in check, hopes to prevent his niece from inheriting a similar fate, though it’s never actually stated what the difference would be between having Light and Dark powers (presumably the former are too boring for words, not to mention teen fiction). Understandably nervous about her looming birthday, Lena also wants to experience something akin to a normal adolescence and opens herself to a romance with the ever-enthusiastic Ethan, who’s happy to oblige and remains largely oblivious to the land mines that lie ahead in their relationship.
Turning up to promote the Dark cause are two Sirens, Ridley (Emmy Rossum), a wild thing who rolls into town in a red-hot BMW convertible and, since turning 16, has never met anyone she didn’t want to corrupt, and Sarafine (Emma Thompson), another Dark Caster who isn’t going to make it any easier for Macon to keep Lena in line until her birthday. Both actresses clearly relish whooping it up as bad girls, and Thompson has the double pleasure of also playing Gatlin’s uptight guardian of morality, Mrs. Lincoln, who’s also the mother of Ethan best friend Link (Thomas Mann).
The central thrust of the story is a teenage girl’s anxiety and troubled contemplation of imminent womanhood, which in Lena’s case has a fixed date and implications beyond the concerns of her peers. She’s constrained from revealing her true nature, but, because Ethan is uncomplicated and entirely optimistic about the future, she can at least momentarily enjoy the illusion of first love and a normal adolescence.
Writer-director Richard LaGravenese instantly gets the audience on the side of his young protagonists by creating a sympathetic us-against-the-world bond in which hardly anyone else, even including Ethan, can possibly understand the crisis at hand. One character who helps clarify the issue is Amma (Viola Davis), the local librarian who also helps look after Ethan and knows more about local history and its current implications than anyone but Macon. But Ethan can only imagine rising above the limitations fate prescribes and Ehrenreich (Tetro, Twixt, Stoker) has an openness and enthusiasm that makes his conviction credible enough.
Still, a few glancing moments of greater seriousness from him would have been welcome if only to enable Ethan to engage with the gravity given off by Englert. As she does in Ginger and Rosa, this young actress (the daughter of director Jane Campion) projects a maturity and self-possession beyond her years. This benefits her performance as a troubled girl with lots on her mind but also puts Lena on a level that would challenge the empathy and psychological acuity of even the most mature man, making you wonder at times how Ethan’s insistent encouragement alone will be enough to help her through her rite of passage.
Rossum barnstorms through her role in a way that ensures you watch her and only her whenever she’s onscreen, while the more grown-up performers effortlessly provide what they were paid to deliver: class. The visual effects also are up to par, but the more abundant they become, the more they make Beautiful Creatures look and feel like so many other films of its type: a concoction that makes highly calculated use of fantasy, fates, taboos, young love and visual hocus-pocus to ensnare an audience in a narrative web that’s pretty darn ridiculous.
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