Beautiful Creatures is a teen fantasy romance movie, clearly intended to capitalize on the vast, gaping void left in the wake of tweeners’ dearly departed Twilight franchise. It makes up a whole bunch of new rules about an old timey horror monster – this time it’s witches – and devotes most of its running time to love conquering all in high school, where in reality love is perhaps more doomed than any other location on Earth. It has a huge, sprawling cast of respected actors, Oscar winners and nominees alike, spouting giggleworthy dialogue about the fate of the world, the curse of young womanhood and, just for the hell of it, Google.
It is also, and this is very, very important… pretty good.
Good, not great. Highly enjoyable. Boasts more creativity and personality than the typical movie of its ilk. Treading uneasily along the border of sincere charm and high camp, never stumbling for too long onto either side. Beautiful Creatures had the deck stacked against it, and it wins anyway, because it knows when to take itself seriously, and when to say, screw it, let’s just let Emmy Rossum vamp it up in gauche fetish outfits and seduce Ducky from Pretty in Pink in a dark alleyway because, well heck, we’ve never seen that before.
There’s a mad creative spirit involved in Beautiful Creatures, grounded by superficial similarities to that which came before. The genders are reversed this time. Alden Ehrenreich plays Ethan Wate, a nerdy but popular teen who spends all his time reading banned books – and actually absorbing the information – and dreaming of going to college as far away from Gatlin, SC as humanly possible. He meets and is attracted (without going nuts with it) to Lena Duchannes, played by Alice Englert. She’s been shuffled from one school to another, has a believable attitude about it, and she’s a witch. Oh, sorry. She’s a “caster.” The W-word is just rude.
The magical world of Lena Duchannes is both alluring and annoying to Ethan, who found Lena nifty before he knew about her special powers, and then finds the whole world nifty after he does. But instead of a naïve power fantasy about meeting the perfect mate in high school, complete with magical escapades that are somehow all about you, Ethan spends half the film getting mystically used, abused and manipulated by Lena’s family. Her uncle Macon, played by Jeremy Irons, is protecting Lena from “dark casters” (which sounds like a skin infection) who plan to claim her on her 16th birthday. Male casters, you see, get to choose the dark or the light side of the magical plane when they come of age. Women, on the other hand, supposedly cannot choose for themselves, their fates dictated for them whether they like it or not (a plot point that’s going exactly where you think it’s going).
And yet, it works. Lena’s entrance into the community of Gatlin is met with derision and fear, left over from generations of conservatism, religious fundamentalism and Civil War re-enactments. Gatlin is an effective stand-in for all communities in which progressivism and “the new” is stereotypically avoided. The oppression of women as a lower class, incapable of making decisions for themselves, weaves neatly into that tapestry. And the geographic location provides many ancillary benefits, like appealingly wooded vistas and throwbacks to Tennessee Williams-ish emotional beats and pleasingly broad performances, particularly by Emma Thompson (who is having the time of her life). It’s all justified. It’s all rather clever.
But it wouldn’t work unless our two young lovers worked, and they do. These are not conceptual landscapes as heroes. They are not meant to be projected onto, they are meant to be empathized with. Their passions, their fears and their naïve dreams for their futures stem from unique, interesting experiences that are related (or at least efficiently recapped) on screen. Their romance is sweet, yet mired in plausible screw-ups, hormonal outbursts, poor choices of words and other stumbling blocks we all know and still resort to when someone cool and pretty comes along in our lives. They feel human in a world of absolute fairy tale nonsense, and I really, really wanted them to get together at the end, even though I know that they’ll probably end up in different colleges and drift steadily apart. They click together, at least for now, and more power to them. How often do we see two lovers in a movie whom, if we knew them personally, we’d be happy for?
I giggled a lot at Beautiful Creatures, and I suspect you will too. Between the awkward teenaged relationship angst, the gaudy outfits and the pleasingly brazen overacting by its supporting cast, the movie is just a few steps removed from a newfangled Rocky Horror. But I mean that as a compliment. It has genuine sincerity on its side, a firm appreciation of the ridiculous, and the confident knowledge of when to dip into either extreme. I laughed, yes, but more importantly I genuinely cared. Beautiful Creatures is one of the best movies of its kind. That’s not saying much, but just take the compliment already.