I can remember the first time I saw a promo for Beautiful Creatures. The world was still in the full tilt throes of Twilight-mania, and my eyes did a mighty roll around their sockets. The marketing showed supernatural teens in love, lots of moping, and all the other apparent trappings of something Stephenie Meyer might have vomited out of her unfortunate imagination. Even though I felt biased against this movie from the start, I still was interested in checking it out to see just how bad it could be. Imagine my surprise, then, when I actually watched Beautiful Creatures and caught myself searching for the e-book that inspired it shortly thereafter. As someone who reviles Twilight and all the weirdness associated therewith, I truly can say I enjoyed Beautiful Creatures, apparent marketing associations be damned.
The Twilight connection isn’t something I’m making up or unfairly saddling onto this movie. The back of the Blu-ray case carries a quote from a review at J-14 Magazine that positively compares Beautiful Creatures to both Twilight and The Hunger Games. I’m sure attaching the movie to those high profile YA adaptation movies will help move some copies of this one, but Beautiful Creatures bears little resemblance to The Hunger Games (a book and movie that I really do like) and deserves far better than being propped up beside Twilight. True, this movie is about a pair of teenagers, one of whom is a supernatural being and the other a mortal human, and the supernatural teen’s family dramas play heavily into the story. The similarities beyond that are sparse, and Beautiful Creatures stands on its own as a unique story with an impressive cast and a gorgeous aesthetic.
In a gender flip from the usual setup for these sorts of stories, our narrator and initial protagonist is male. Ethan Wate (Alden Ehrenreich) is a teen living with his dad in the small town of Gatlin, South Carolina. Gatlin is deep in Civil War country, and the bulk of its citizens divide their time between battle reenactments and churchgoing. The stereotype of narrow minded and religious Southern folk is heavy here, as exemplified by Ethan’s huffy busybody ex-girlfriend Emily (Ringer’s Zoey Deutch) and Ethan’s best friend Link’s (Thomas Mann) church lady mother Mrs. Lincoln (Emma Thompson). Ethan, an avid reader of books the town has banned, longs to escape his little burg, and every night he dreams of a strange girl standing alone in a field as the wind whips her hair across her face.
As happens in these sorts of situations, it’s not long before the literal girl of Ethan’s dreams arrives in town. Lena Duchannes (Alice Englert) shows up at Ethan’s high school after having moved in with her uncle, the wealthy, reclusive, and locally notorious Macon Ravenwood (Jeremy Irons). Macon owns a great portion of Gatlin, but the good people of the town shun him amidst their bubbling rumors that he’s some sort of dark wizard. Of course, they’re right about that, but does a little black magic really warrant the Boo Radley treatment? Ethan immediately finds himself drawn to Lena, and the two become tentative friends. Lena, it turns out, is the youngest in a line of her magical family. She will be turning 16 soon, and with her birthday will come a great turning point in her life and in her destiny. MTV has taught us via My Super Sweet 16 that teen birthdays can unleash all sorts of unsightly evil, but even that parade of wickedness pales in comparison to the relentless forces of dark and light that vie for Lena’s soul.
Beautiful Creatures wraps itself in its Southern gothic trappings and unapologetically dips into campy territory every once in a while. The movie never allows itself to become too deadly serious or morose, though. Save the moping and long sighs for some other teenage supernatural movie, because Beautiful Creatures delivers an enjoyable tale headed up by a less broody hero than I’m used to seeing in this sort of story. There are a few contrivances as the plot progresses, but what the story occasionally lacks in logic it makes up for in gorgeous setpieces, fun performances from talented actors, and elaborate wardrobes. The interior of Macon Ravenwood’s sprawling magic mansion is fantastically fluid in transitioning from one elaborate décor to another, and Macon himself is prone to rambling around its hallways dressed like the Pope. Jeremy Irons’ wardrobe isn’t exactly the same as from The Borgias, but it’s close. Viola Davis plays a friend of Ethan’s family, and Emmy Rossum is Ridley, Lena’s older cousin who already has gone through her own rite of witchcraft passage. Even the tertiary cast is impressive, made up of familiar and talented character actors like Pruitt Taylor Vince and Margo Martindale.
Make no mistake, though. I speak highly of this movie, but it’s not a masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination. It’s not even a great movie, but it is good and surpasses all of my ill informed expectations. Beautiful Creatures encapsulates the elements of teenage supernatural romance that work and presents them in an enjoyable package that was adapted from the first book in a series by authors Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl. The big name actors chew the scenery from time to time, but that’s part of the appeal. Our primary characters circle dire circumstances throughout, but the movie is aware enough of its own ridiculousness that it never fully slips into painful pretension. Rather, Beautiful Creatures is a fun jaunt into the world of teen supernatural dramas done well.
Beautiful Creatures releases on Blu-ray and DVD on May 21, and it includes a number of featurettes, interviews, and deleted scenes alongside the feature film.