Beautiful Creatures (2013) – Directed by Richard LaGravenese – Starring Alden Ehrenreich, Alice Englert, Jeremy Irons, Viola Davis, Emmy Rossum, Thomas Mann, Margo Martindale, Eileen Atkins, Zoey Deutch, Tiffany Boone, and Emma Thompson.
If critics were as upset about the success of the teenage supernatural romance drama as they are the superhero genre, a movie like BEAUTIFUL CREATURES would be accompanied by hundreds of articles wondering if we’ve reached the saturation point and decrying the sure-to-be imminent end of the genre. (As much as I love Grantland, they seem to run a doomsday article like this every other week; that site wants superhero movies to fail so they can say, “I told you so.” It seems pretty clear someone in Grantland editorial is just utterly befuddled by the success of superhero movies and keeps commissioning articles to poke holes in the genre.) CREATURES cost as much to make as it brought in, which is Hollywood for, “Failure.”
BEAUTIFUL CREATURES is one part engaging teenage romance and one part uninspired supernatural silliness, but there is style in Richard LaGravenese’s adaptation of Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl’s novel and there are two good kids at the center of the silliness.
What BEAUTIFUL CREATURES gets right is the love story between small town boy, Ethan (Alden Ehrenreich) and outsider, Lena (Alice Englert). He wants to be anywhere but his small town of Gatlin, South Carolina town and she’s just biding time to get to her 16th birthday when the moon will decide whether she’s a good witch or a bad witch.
Honestly, the supernatural angle in this film is pretty terrible. Lena and her family are witches, but they don’t call themselves witches. They call themselves Casters because one of the first witches must have been a marketing major. On her 16th birthday, her “true nature” will be revealed and she’ll either become a good Caster or a bad Caster, which is important because apparently being sorted over into the Black Hat side means you lose all sense of your own decency. You will be consumed by evil, which seems terribly dramatic, and also rather silly. I mean, I get that we’re dealing with a YA novel, and in YA novels teenagers getting served the wrong kind of ice cream is the equivalent of the Trail of Tears, but this is still pretty heady stuff to lay at the feet of a kid who’s not even old enough to legally drive, yet.
Wouldn’t 18 be a better age? Tying in the ENTIRE FATE OF THE REST OF YOUR LIFE to the equivalent of finishing high school would reverberate with a little more power, I think, but maybe as our society continues to do and expect everything at a younger age, 16 is the new 18.
BEAUTIFUL CREATURES gets off to a rough start. You know Ethan is the Local Boy Who Wants to Get Away because he reads Vonnegut in a town where “there are more banned books than there are books at the library.” It was a bit painful, at first, to listen to Ethan spouting off whatever cliches the book/movie’s writers could remember from their 200-level sophomore Lit classes, but to the movie’s credit, Ethan keeps at this. Sure, he reads Bukowski just because Lena reads Bukowski, but doing something just to impress a girl isn’t any less cool just because it’s literary. And Ethan actually reads it and internalizes it. He’s interested enough in literature to “get” Bukowski, but he’s also interested enough in Lena to try to memorize Bukowski to impress her.
Which “fails” when he can’t remember the exact quote, but “succeeds” when he admits he tried to memorize it just so he could impress her. It’s one of the movie’s better scenes because it identifies just how self-aware Ethan is, and that Lena, for all her burgeoning magical powers, isn’t above being charmed by a charming guy.
When BEAUTIFUL CREATURES sticks to scenes between Ethan and Lena, I’m totally on board with this movie. (Which, yeah, was a bit surprising because I had no interest in watching yet another teenage supernatural/scifi romance.) Ethan is charming, but he’s also honest at his core, and a good guy. When Lena comes out to him, his freak out is very minimal, and instead of the movie pushing to hard at the idea that her witch-ness is a turn on for him (because it is, due to its anti-Gatlin-ness), it quickly pivots Ethan to a position of wanting to know what this means FOR LENA, not him, and assuring her that she’ll be fine because she’s a good person.
It’s refreshing to see a teenage love story like this where, despite the shared historical ties of their ancestors (more in a minute) and all the talk of ghosts and curses and witches, there’s just two good, well-meaning, honestly in love kids at the center of it. Their initial attraction is based on appearances, but quickly it becomes apparent that what each of them sees in the other is something they lack: for Ethan, it’s Lena’s status as a outsider, which is almost always cover for a person’s deep sense of internalized fear that they are just like all the people they despise, that the sameness they see in everyone else is actually a reflection of themselves. For Lena, it’s Ethan’s easygoing nature, his charm, and most importantly, his ability to fit in wherever he finds himself.
Ethan is hyper-concerned about Lena’s 16th birthday, in part, because he’s concerned about that coming day in his own future when he has to make that make or break decision that will determine the fate of the rest of his life. For her, it’s which side of the witch aisle she ends up on. For him, it’s whether he goes to college locally or far away. Fundamentally, these moments are exactly the same for Ethan.
Despite their attraction being supported by finding in the other what they lack (You complete me. You. Complete. Me.) or worry about in their own lives, Ethan and Lena do come to actually care about one another. The film is on shaky ground whenever it brings in the non-supernatural parts of town and delves into the uber-Christian right, but it wisely minimizes these aspects. After the opening few sequences of the film, when Lena is hated on in class by two snotty bitches (one of whom used to date Ethan and still wants a reconciliation he doesn’t) to the point where her magic blows in the room’s windows, my hand was itching for the remote control. There was no way I was going to sit through scene after scene of high school drama involving such broadly drawn types as Emily and Savannah (Zoey Deutch and Tiffany Boone), but my hand never got to hit the fast forward button because CREATURES uses the high school to set-up the Ethan/Lena romance and then largely disappears.
The supernatural angle is a mess. There’s a scene at dinner where Lena and her evil sister, Ridley (Emily Rossum), where the two play spin-the-dinner-table that almost devolves into Dark Shadows-level insipidness. Jeremy Irons and Emma Thompson chew some scenery in the film, and while the former gives the film some foundational gravity and the latter gives it some outrageous camp, neither Lena’s uncle nor her mother do much for the film except when they’re facing off against one another.
There is one visually and narratively inspired scene in the movie. Ethan and Lena go on a date to see a movie, and during the film, they are treated to their own private movie when they join hands around a Civil War locket. The movie and theater give way to a washed out, swirling memory of the Civil War and they see that Lena’s mother loved one of Ethan’s descendants. He was killed by Union soldiers and she used her powers to bring him back to life, which is a big no-no, and means that all of her descendants will suffer from a curse of going evil on their 16th birthday. The scene is beautifully rendered, with the theater slowly giving way to the historical moment, but it is so effective that it makes the rest of the movie look poorer for its inclusion because I kept waiting for another scene like that.
It doesn’t happen, as the film ignores the twinning stories of Lena and Ethan with her mother and his ancestor for melodramatic fireworks.
Pity. BEAUTIFUL CREATURES ends up being a missed opportunity more than a successful film, unfortunately. Half-good, half-not-so-good, never to be watched again.