Saturday, March 02, 2013

Beautiful Creatures

The foundation of Beautiful Creatures is the kind of Young Adult romance that has studios seeing box office gold in the post-Twilight era. An attractive young boy and girl meet and fall in love, but a barrier exists that threatens not only their relationship but the wider world as well. Yet Beautiful Creatures is an example of what a few ideas and an above average cast can do to a boilerplate scenario. I don’t know if we have the next big franchise on our hands but there is a jolt of energy here that is worth watching.

There is a boy named Ethan (Alden Ehrenreich, whose young DiCaprio qualities are well-used) in a small South Carolina town who dreams of getting out. Ethan reads Vonnegut and Bukowski and has recently broken up with a popular girl. With a mother recently dead and absent father, Ethan has only his books and family friend Amma (Viola Davis) for company. When Lena Duchannes (Alice Englert) arrives at Ethan’s school he is naturally drawn to another outsider, but Lena brings a very different set of issues to the table. The youngest in a broken family of “casters” (witches), Lena is nervously awaiting her sixteenth birthday and the moment when her powers will be “claimed” for either the forces of light or dark. The idea of claiming is central to Beautiful Creatures and is well-tailored to the film’s young audience. Ethan wants out of South Carolina but isn’t exactly sure how to go about it; when asked about his plans for college he says has applied to “all of them.” He is waiting for life to find him because he hasn’t yet learned how to take what he wants. Due to a Civil War-era curse Lena believes she has no control over her future, but as her uncle Macon (Jeremy Irons) reminds her she has a part to play in her own fate. Englert and Ehrenreich make an appealing couple, but it’s Jeremy Irons and Emma Thompson (as Lena’s mother Sarafine) who give Beautiful Creatures its sense of something at stake. The conflict is a classic one: Macon accepts the fact that casters have to live in the human world while Sarafine wants to use Lena’s power for her own ends. Irons and Thompson are both having a great time, and part of the movie’s pleasure is the personal charisma they bring to their roles.

Writer/director Richard LaGravenese, adapting the first in a series of young adult novels, isn’t afraid to use the special effects the story requires. A showdown between Lena and her cousin Ridley (Emmy Rossum) is a key scene, since Lena must control her emotions in order to master her own future. Yet what separates Beautiful Creatures from its peers in the paranormal teen romance genre is the way its characters get what they want by reading and thinking. Ethan has constructed his view of what he wants his life to be from his books, and in order to break the curse Lena must do research at a caster library. These teens aren’t swept away by capital-letter forces like Love and Destiny, rather they’re gaining knowledge they need to navigate the adult world. It is that distinction, plus a fine cast in good form, that makes Beautiful Creatures so welcome and any future installments so promising.

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