A film review by Craig J. Koban July 24, 2013

BEAUTIFUL CREATURES jj
½ 

2013, PG-13, 124 mins.

 

Alice Englert as Lena  /  Alden Ehrenreich as Ethan  /  Emma Thompson as Sarafine  /  Viola Davis as Amma  /  Emily Rossum as Ridley  /  Jeremy Irons as Macon

Written and directed by Richard Lagravenese, based on the book by the same name by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl

Criticizing BEAUTIFUL CREATURES for being a TWILIGHT-inspired knock-off is almost kind of redundant…as it doesn’t really hide that fact at all.  

Based on the 2009 young adult novel of the same name – the first book in the "Caster Chronicles" – by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl, the film lacks a lingering sense of intrigue not because of its resemblance to its more famous werewolves and vampires cinematic cousin, but more because it’s kind of a plodding and middling example of the youth romance fantasy melodrama.   The film’s South Carolina setting is certainly a chief asset, as is the film’s stylish direction and the performances by most members of the cast seem more uniformly good than what was on-screen in the TWILIGHT films.  Nonetheless, I frankly found myself rarely engaged with the underlining material here, which never really euphorically takes off like it wants to. 

Again…yes…comparisons to TWILIGHT are painfully inevitable, but BEAUTIFUL CREATURES at least has some tangible differences from that sparkling Nosferatu tale.  Both films are supernatural at their inherent cores, but in BEAUTIFUL CREATURES the sexes of the mortal and not-so-mortal characters are inversed.  In its case, the female is the one baring supernatural gifts and the male is the ordinary human that falls in love.  The young man in question is Ethan (Alden Ehrenreich), a southern lad stuck in the middle of proverbial nowhere in Gatlin, South Carolina.  Yup, he’s like just about every other teen on the planet – he immerses himself in classic literary works of the 20th Century, like Vonnegut and Salinger.  As is the case in all teen-centric romances, Ethan - down-on-his-luck in love - manages to fall head-over-heels at relative first sight with Lena Duchannes (Alice Englert, daughter of director Jane Champion) as she enters his class one day.  Actually, he has also been seeing her in his dreams beforehand as well.  Weird. 

 

 

Of course, the town is filled with a whole lot of religious nutjobs, all of whom seem to have their deepest suspicions that Lena and the entire Duchannes family are all in league with the devil.  They may have a point, seeing as Lena and her kind are witches…actually…make that “castors” (basically witches), which are capable of, yup, casting spells, controlling weaker willed people, controlling the weather, and so on.  It’s revealed that Lena, when she turns sweet sixteen, will go through a right of passage process that will either have her become a dark or good witch, but Ethan seems to be determined to have her be a good witch.  Of course, as the pair begin to fall in love, their relationship gets very complicated by the presence of a Lena’s momma, a dark castor named Sarafine (Emma Thompson) and her ultra-sensuous and twisted cousin, Ridley (Emmy Rossum).  Hmmm…I wonder if Lena’s castor Uncle Malcolm (Jeremy Irons) will prevent her from going rogue?  Or, will Lena’s mother and cousin convince her to embrace the inevitability of a dark turn?  And, for that matter, how does the Civil War fit in to all of this?  Well…it does. 

There is certainly talent behind the camera here in BEAUTIFUL CREATURES.  The film was written and directed by Richard LaGravense, who previously was nominated for an Oscar for his screenplay for THE FISHER KING.  He gives the film an attractively lush and immersive look and feel that helps separate itself from other TWILIGHT posers.  Then there is the inclusion of heavyweight Oscar winning acting titans like Thompson and Irons that, to be fair, do their very best to ham it up with some wickedly over-the-top Southern accents (they both seem to be acknowledging and winking to the audience that the film that they are parading around in is indeed pretty silly).  Sometimes, it’s more appealing to have master thespians like them engage in purposely modulated high camp than to play their roles as seriously as heart attacks, which consequently assists the film with not, in turn, taking itself to solemnly. 

The younger stars fare fine as well.  Ehrenreich and Englert seem to have a nice, understated rapport and chemistry on-screen that has a bit more nuance and subtlety than what occurred between Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart.  Emmy Rossum proves to be an effective foil to them, playing a sensual creature of foul ill will (she takes a page out of Thompson’s and Irons’ playbook by simply losing herself in her performance amidst the film’s chaos and lunacy).  BEAUTIFUL CREATURES, if anything, seems to have some thanklessly decent performances for the type of film it is, not to mention that it has a better sense of tongue-in-cheek slyness with the underlining material than the TWILIGHT films ever did.  LaGravense seems to know how to quarterback everyone involved here – despite the tonal differences among all the actors – to create something quite cohesive. 

Yet, the real dilemma that befalls BEAUTIFUL CREATURES is that there is very little, if any, sense of huge payoff for the central romance by the end of the film.  Even though the cast is uniformly game, the script never really does much to embellish the story of star-crossed lovers fighting against all odds to see their love win over those odds.  The other issue with the film is that its own entrenched mythology of the castors never really does anything novel or invigorating with it.  Castors are, as stated, nothing more than powerful witches, and the film really misses a golden opportunity to either do something deliriously different with its premise or, more intriguingly, satirically comment on the castor’s existence within the larger framework of a normal society.  The film seems to have more fun with emphasizing southern stereotypes and overused melodramatic conceits to help sell its narrative.  Not very much in the overall story of BEAUTIFUL CREATURES feels cutting edge…or even has edge or a sense of meaningful conflict or danger.  I never really once feared for the plight of Lena and Ethan.  

I think that it’s clear that the makers here were hoping for BEAUTIFUL CREATURES to be the starting point of a potentially lucrative young adult franchise to appease the tweeners in the audience trying to fill their TWILIGHT void and hungers.  There are interesting concepts and ideas at the heart of the film, and the actors playing the adolescent lovers are indeed good together.  Yet, I strained myself to piece together anything truly memorable about the film days after seeing it.  The soul-sucking awfulness of the TWILIGHT films stuck with me well after screening them, but with BEAUTIFUL CREATURES I am more stuck with nagging feelings of missed opportunities here with its material.

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