Prepackaged as an attempt to jumpstart another YA franchise, Ã la “Twilight,” that hopefully won’t lapse into franchise fatigue, “Beautiful Creatures” ain’t half-bad. Based on Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl’s first book in their Caster Chronicle series, this is pure hokum but interestingly nutty hokum that’s strange, more intentionally funny, and yet so darn goofy that it’s more fun than expected. As a first chapter, it’s a decent start; as a whole film, it doesn’t feel fully realized but will do.
In the sleepy, microscopic town of Gatlin, South Carolina, where the movie theater get the titles wrong on the marquee and the residents live for church and Civil War reenactments, 17-year-0ld Ethan Wate (Alden Ehrenreich) feels like he doesn’t belong and is dying to get out. In the meantime, he enjoys reading banned books like Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse-Five” and he’s not that interested in the popular Southern belle type of girls that start every sentence with, “My mama saysâ€¦” When new girl Lena Duchannes (Alice Englert) comes to town to move into the creepy, gated Ravenwood Manor with her Uncle Macon (Jeremy Irons), all of Ethan’s peers steer clear, as word has it she’s a “witch,” but Lena’s outsider status only makes Ethan become more interested. Once Ethan lifts her off her feet, proving he’s not the standard jock type, Lena reveals to her new boyfriend that she comes from a family of witches, or “casters” as they prefer to be called. With the days passing before her 16th birthay (she has a shifting number tattoo on her hand), Lena will face her family curse and her powers will be claimed by either the Light or the Dark side, led by Lena’s powerful mother Sarafine (Emma Thompson). The teenage witch’s fate can only be determined by her true nature, but no caster can love a mortal.
Not to make tired comparisons to “Twilight,” but the most obvious common-denominator between that and “Beautiful Creatures” is that both are tortured teen romances mixed with the supernatural. Younger audiences just can’t watch two interesting human characters fall in love anymore. Luckily, writer-director Richard LaGravenese (2007′s “P.S. I Love You”) doesn’t take the material as seriously as the first couple of po-faced Bella-and-Edward sagas. On the less lucky side, there is four hours’ worth of movie packed into 124 minutes, which doesn’t become a problem until so much lumbering exposition has to be explained and the plot machinations kick in. It’s a particular bore when Lena has to sit in a catacomb of the local library for a week, reading up on ways to break the spell. We haven’t even mentioned Viola Davis’s role, Amma, who’s a “seer,” a voodoo practitioner, a librarian, and some sort of guardian for Ethan after his mother’s death, even though he lives with his father (who is never to be seen).
The most fun is watching all the different acting styles going on here. The leads are both untried newcomers but Ehrenreich and Englert (Jane Champion’s daughter) prove to be charismatic, earnest, and instantly appealing. They create cool, free-thinking outsiders who don’t just pout over their forbidden love but actually hold intelligent conversations concerning Charles Bukowski’s poetry. Together, their romance is sweet and grounded in some sort of awkward-teen reality, but it doesn’t pack enough fervor to say it’s worth crying over if Lena is claimed by the Dark. Siren-like cousin Ridley can’t come to town soon enough, being played by a sexy, slinky Emmy Rossum, who vamps it up, sucking on strawberries and spitting out the stems, and livens things up immensely. Thompson, far from “Sense and Sensibility,” busts her buns munching up the scenery with kooky relish in not one but two roles: the Bible-thumping church lady Mrs. Lincoln and the playfully villainous Sarafine. Her overripe line of “Well, slap my ass and call me Sally!” adds a burst of hilarious camp. Irons, appearing in smoking robes, does his fair share of hamming but mostly retains his classical theater training. Eileen Atkins, with a lavender rinse, and Margo Martindale, first appearing with a live peacock no less, are both eccentric delights as Lena’s grandmother and aunt, but have as much to work as some of the family members in Tim Burton’s “Dark Shadows.”
Without completely falling off its axis into an effects-driven cacophony, the film is burdened by some lame, obtrusively cheesy fantasy effects, like a spinning dinner table out of an episode of “Charmed.” Otherwise, Southern atmosphere and art direction are tops, particularly the Ravenwood Manor, with a moss-covered plantation exterior and a modern, black-and-white interior, much like the revamped Maitland home in “Beetlejuice.” On balance, this entertaining-enough Southern Gothic supernatural melodrama is such a zonky, overcooked stew with broad Southern accents and colorful characters that the coda leaving the doors open for the next film doesn’t induce much dread. Move over Bella and Edward: Lena and Ethan are interesting enough to be the linchpin of all this occult hooey.
124 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: B –