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'Beautiful Creatures' seeks to capitalize on the successes of more beautiful fantasies

Warner Bros

By Noah Cohen, Daily Arts Writer
Published February 19, 2013

The best thing that can be said for “Beautiful Creatures” was that it wasn’t sure what it wanted to be. Another angsty teenage love story wherein one of the teens happens to be supernaturally talented? Yes. But where “Twilight” monopolized on romance and “Hunger Games” forced its young adults into macro-scale heroism, “Beautiful Creatures” is more quaint, and brushes up against a lot of different moods. The way its execution fluctuates between serious and goofy (and occasionally swerves into stupid), saves it from the doldrums of cliché that its plot easily falls victim to.

Ethan Wate (Alden Ehrenreich, “Tetro”) is a sophisticated high schooler in a small town in South Carolina where thinking can get you into trouble, and his closest company — Kurt Vonnegut, Anthony Burgess, Charles Bukowski — just can’t occupy a 16-year-old boy like a 15-year-old brunette can. Cue the new girl, Lena Duchannes (Alice Englert, “Ginger & Rosa”), some darkly mysterious fresh blood from that old mansion over the way, whom all the Good Christians shun and whom our protagonist approaches like a moth to a flame. Ethan comes to support Lena as she faces her own challenges: the challenges of a young woman coming of age in a town that does not respect her; the challenges of a young woman with magical powers doomed by her witch mother’s influence to be claimed by eternal darkness on her 16th birthday. Needless to say, the script doesn’t suffer from a lack of conflict.

Lena’s evil mother, Sarafine, and the Boo Radley-esque Macon, Lena’s protective uncle (Emma Thompson, “Sense and Sensibility,” and Jeremy Irons, “The Man in the Iron Mask” respectively) play it heavy as the creep adults. It’s very strange to see these English veterans of the theater chewing the Southern scenery with clownish swagger, and it makes you think that the director, Richard LaGravenese, is having a bit too much fun with the whole enterprise. Having written “The Fisher King” and directed such films as “Paris, je t’aime,” it seems that LaGravenese, whether consciously or not, considers himself above the likes of teen angst blockbusters, and so he strips the meat of the film away and commands his actors to dance, which is just as well, because every single actor in this production is better than his or her lines.

Particularly one Viola Davis (“Won’t Back Down”), who plays the stereotypical “Wise Black Woman” Amma, and frankly, that might have been her actual tagline in the credits, because it was intensely unclear what specific role she actually held. The household librarian? The magnificent Emma Thompson, too, is ill put to use in her double role, and, playing two caricatures, is twice wasted by LaGravenese. The protagonists, at least, are given some dynamism, and the silly-serious Ehrenreich and anxious Englert do admirably in their parts despite holding themselves a bit too well to pass for high schoolers.

The film is a mixed message. It promotes freethinking and imaginative rebellion against one’s culture, yet it is not freethinking or imaginative itself. Indeed, for a movie that pokes at Christian traditionalism, the values that “Beautiful Creatures” sponsors as “the Light side of magic” are as Christian as it gets. The film does not go pink enough to ride “Twilight” ’s coattails and does not go blue enough to ride “True Blood” or, God forbid, “Fifty Shades of Gray.” It is a tentative romantic fantasy that skates easily over itself and does not leave a mark. The film’s finish (and the fact that it is based on a book that is the first in its series) puts it in potential-for-a-sequel territory, but only the box office can decide whether or not the franchise will get the chance to improve, because it does not win that opportunity on merit.


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