Beautiful Creatures, Review

Better than Twilight . . .

Teenagers do not understand romantic love. This highly acceptable naiveté can be heard in their pop lyrics (which repeat declarations of eternal devotion that have indeed been used forever), in the books they gravitate towards (Romeo and Juliet, no doubt) and even in their own sham courtships that become direct examples of the Rilo Kiley lyric, “All of your failures are training grounds.” 

One of the new hot trending tools for helping teens understand what Air Supply calls “The Power of Love” is the rise of young adult horror films, including Warm Bodies, all of those Twilight films and now Beautiful Creatures. These films are united by their perspective of attempting to explain the phenomenon of love by treating it with a supernatural sense, which is a pithy attempt to convince soon-to-be bitter adults that the whole shebang is really all about bus transfers, the movie Blue Valentine and being dumped at the Rainforest Cafe when I was 17.  

Based on Book One of The Caster Chronicles by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl, Beautiful Creatures is a film that was initially rejected, as a script brief, by its two actors, so don’t blame me if this plot description loses you: Alden Ehrenreich plays Ethan, a literate young man who dives headfirst into banned reading book lists, delighting in the work of people like Bukowski or even Bob Dylan. Stuck in his town of Gatlin, South Carolina, Ethan dreams, both of the different environments discussed in the banned books he adores and of this girl he does not know in real life.

Said dream girl soon appears and she’s Lena Duchannes (Alice Englert) a 15 year old new kid with a strange air about her. Keeping to herself, Lena isn’t embraced by her snobby classmates, especially in light of what their parents are gossiping about Lena’s family. Because of her mystery and for some other reason beyond his teenage understanding, Ethan is drawn to this wisecracking outcast, even though she is a tough Boo Radley to crack. His innocent gestures toward her are met with hesitation, but eventually she does open up to him, crazy baggage in tow. 

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Lena is a Caster, which is different than a witch, but not really. Basically, while under the watch of her reclusive uncle Macon Ravenwood (Jeremy Irons), spell casting Lena has been raised to choose a destiny on her sixteenth birthday; she can either be “claimed” as Light or Dark, the latter being the choice of her devious cousin Ridley (Emmy Rossum). While this sounds like a lot, it turns out that Ethan is connected to Lena’s ancestry, per the info coming from his pseudo grandmother Amma, played by Viola Davis. 

The most effective spell cast by Beautiful Creatures is indeed its two leading cast members, who are newcomers to the game of Hollywood moviemaking. Previously, Ehrenreich has been seen only in less mainstream fare like Francis Ford Coppola’s Tetro; and Englert recently starred opposite Elle Fanning in Ginger & Rosa. For this movie’s main audience, they will be unknowns and the courageous casting uses that too full advantage; watching the two talented leads is a discovery in itself and lures viewers into sticking around to see what story is to be told with these genuine characters. The freshness these new faces bring to the well trodden territory of young adult entertainment even provides a boost of authenticity to the story of two young people in supernatural love; and the chemistry between the two is arguably stronger than anything in Twilight or even Warm Bodies. With believable accents, Ehrenreich and Englert provide a genuine nature to a movie that could easily be entirely lost to its mysticism. 

Aside from the two romantic actors who share the same initials, Beautiful Creatures is working with supporting actors with reasonably heavy duty dramatic potential. Unfortunately, they best provide images of stalwart adults, as seen with the likes of Jeremy Irons’ prickly uncle or Viola Davis’ wise Amma, who has answers to many of Ethan’s questions, but also has a whole lot of crazy.

Coming in hot with flair and grand self-amusement, Emma Thompson provides the film’s most intriguing supporting performance, her take on a narrow minded conservative in a town such as Gatlin borders on hilarious during the movie’s lighter moments. Thompson’s performance provides the offbeat color a movie proudly about outcasts such as Beautiful Creatures needs.

What this film doesn’t need is a performance like Emmy Rossum’s, who tries to stink up the movie with her femme fatale scent, but comes with endlessly corny potential most readily compared to Uma Thurman’s Poison Ivy in Joel Schumacher’s opus to the death of comic book movies, Batman and Robin. Dressed in devious dark clothes, Rossum provides a directionless depiction of tackiness, causing viewers to fear most of all that casters become lame-wads if they choose to go dark. 

While Beautiful Creatures focuses much of its time on supernatural features, these components are not advantageous to the rest of the film. The whole business of Casters and the many ranks, along with Lena’s family history, is not particularly interesting in the big picture.  This thread is only interesting when one considers what it means about the definition of “normal,” as opposed to everything on the surface.

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The idea of casters and whatnot might be the angle that the filmmakers hoped would give Beautiful Creatures an advantage in its growing genre. It’s not. In fact, it makes the film overall slower, weighing the audience down with a fancy way of discussing womanhood, which is essentially the steps that Lena is set to go through as she chooses what type of person she wants to be for the rest of her life. The concept of a caster brings nothing to the story but goofy gothic moments and special effects, such as when a dinner table spins violently during a family dispute or when one of the characters is able to take the form of someone else. The story of Beautiful Creatures becomes an example of what people can easily confuse for spectacle, as these special effects don’t offer much that is special.

A distinct bit of charm for Beautiful Creatures instead comes with the southern setting, which provides an effectively unique flavor to the movie’s atmosphere. This isn’t just any small town, this is a small town in South Carolina, where the citizens have public images to uphold, especially since gossiping is one of the land’s oldest traditions. Chunks of Beautiful Creatures allow for amusing insights into the psychological structure of the location; it’s not only funny to see what uptight parents say about the new people, but their children. For some viewers, Beautiful Creatures won’t simply be potentially relatable for its story of young love, but also for its presentation of tight knit communities.

Beautiful Creatures is a film that knows the general age of viewers who will be purchasing tickets and it has no problem focusing on imagery targeted at that demographic; imagery that seems to be common in any movie set in any high school. Unfortunately, this film carries out its goal of being honest to teenager-dom as a tedious obligation. Beautiful Creatures contains disappointing clichés like the jealous ex-girlfriend, the weird new girl and even the history project assigned at the beginning of the year, which might definitely, obviously, undoubtedly have a bigger part in the plot of the movie later on. While the movie doesn’t have a love triangle, it does offer its supply of raging hormones with make out sequences. This results in comically long takes of people locking lips whenever the script can wrangle such a moment.

Like this month’s Warm Bodies, Beautiful Creatures is a teenage horror romance that fully embraces its cheese and its audience’s participation banks on whether the movie can get people to buy into its fluffier notions. For example, Warm Bodies convinces young viewers to at least humor the notion that love is a force more powerful than death itself. But, such is not the case with Beautiful Creatures, which aims to pull that same Hallmark card. The hokey nature of this film, especially with its serious focus on the Castor world, keeps its message very distant. At best, such an idea can be accepted from Beautiful Creatures with a shrug. Thus, it’s a big “No duh” as to why this film would come out on Valentine’s Day and subsequently a strong explanation of why this movie could also tank.

Beautiful Creatures is basically two movies: the story of two average looking teens falling in love while embracing the truth that they are not normal and the lame duck tale of witchcraft or excuse me, castercraft or whatever. The film features the work of two new promising stars, who make this muddy movie more watchable than it probably should be. Ehrenreich and Englert, who are immediately in need of being placed in a movie like The Perks of Being A Wallflower, prove to the audience that romance does not require storytelling witchcraft to achieve images of true love.

Den of Geek Rating: 2.5 out of 5 

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2.5 out of 5