Special effects get the better of a supernatural-teen romance

Beautiful Creatures

Directed by Richard LaGravenese

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There is exactly one fascinating line of dialogue in writer-director Richard LaGravenese's faux-gothic film Beautiful Creatures. It is spoken by the insubstantial-yet-wicked witch Sarafine Duchannes (Emma Thompson), who hopes to convince her daughter, Lena (Alice Englert), to embrace dark magic and rule over all humankind. "Love," she explains, "is a spell created by mortals to give women something they can have besides power."

 

Had LaGravenese thematically explored this fiery feminist critique of modern patriarchy, his florid supernatural-teen romance-adapted from a best-selling series of novels by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl-would have forever dispelled Stephanie Meyer's odious Mormon ode to passive girl power, Twilight, instead of becoming Bewitched 2.0 for mopey millennials.

Things start promisingly enough with Ethan Wate (Alden Ehrenreich), a restless 16-year-old who sees his hometown of Gatlin, S.C., as an intellectual and cultural straightjacket. Good church-going folk enforce the Southern smiley-faced fascism of good manners, school prayer, and poisonous gossip. Ethan's only refuge are the banned books he devours at home, and we get to know the smart-alecky youth through entertaining voiceover narration.

Enter the enigmatic and alluring new student Lena Duchannes (Englert, daughter of director Jane Campion), who lives with her reclusive uncle Macon Ravenwood (Jeremy Irons). Before you can say "Charles Bukowski," the two teens are connecting over forbidden literature and their fermenting hormones. Too bad: Lena is part of a long line of witches-or "casters" as the family prefers to be called-awaiting her 16th birthday, where her true nature will be revealed and she will either embrace the dark or light side of the force. . . er. . . magic. Worse, her romance with Ethan is literally cursed because of a past historical connection. This being the South, the Civil War of course plays a role.

For roughly 40 minutes, Beautiful Creatures seems intent upon poking fun at everything the Twilight films embraced. The campy, comic banter between Thompson and Irons seems to acknowledge the story's trashy goth-rom origins, while Ethan's observations and asides constantly skewer the depressive chastity and empty-headed melodramatics of Bella and Edward. Englert and Ehrenreich don't just obsessively stare at one another but actually have conversations. LaGravenese's dialogue isn't exactly rife with profound outsider insights (despite plundering Kurt Vonnegut, Anthony Burgess, and Henry Miller) but at least it approximates real teen interests and emotions. It helps that the two leads have a nerdy, authentically awkward chemistry. And while the teen paramours are relatively unknown, their low-budget salaries will inevitably help fuel sequels should the box-office returns prove even modestly successful.

Unfortunately, just when things settle into an engaging rhythm, Beautiful Creatures' lumbering supernatural plot mechanics and second-rate digital effects kick in. All semblance of wit, intelligence, and insight flies out the CGI-shattered windows.

Instead, we're treated to an overcomplicated backstory, less-than-urgent dangers, and a ineffectually vaporous villain. Even the film's Southern gothic trappings get pushed aside in favor of a cliched will-she/won't-she-turn-evil plot line that, in the end, cops out with a bit of smoke and mirrors. LaGravenese rounds out his cast of hastily sketched supporting characters with unknown but blandly handsome teens while relying on Irons and Thompson (who hams it up as both a religious zealot and sneering sorceress) for waggish color. Unfortunately, the veteran actors seem like they're in a completely different movie. It's Oscar-nominated Viola Davis, however, who suffers the greatest indignity in a role that can literally be described as a magic Negro. Her character, Amma, holds down not one but two jobs-housekeeper and supernatural librarian-and both require that she serve white people.

One would hope that when both a book and film take their shared title from Bukowski's "The Way It Is Now," they would be inspired to say something meaningful about the social alienation that teens inevitably experience. It's clear, however, that LaGravenese and Beautiful Creatures' producers looked at Twilight's box-office returns and decided to embrace the "classic stupidity," to borrow from the Poet Laureate of Skid Row, of mainstream Young Adult conventions.

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