Though this adaptation of Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl’s praised novel is sure to earn instant comparisons to the inconceivably popular Twilight franchise, Beautiful Creatures is in fact a far gamier slice of teen pulp, steeped less in punishing self-seriousness, and presenting characters – specifically a potent female role model – who audiences can root for.
Director Richard LaGravenese (Freedom Writers, P.S. I Love You) probably could have shot this material through with the minimum effort and made a modest success out of it because, frankly, there’s definitely one way to make a very boring and familiar version of this film.
The story, of a misfit, Lena (Alice Englert), who arrives in a sleepy southern American town and finds herself torn between the supernatural forces within her and the love of the new boy in her life, Ethan (Alden Ehrenreich), more than echoes the narrative of Stephenie Meyer’s vampiric romance, but like any film, it’s all about the execution.
From the moment we meet protagonist Ethan – who is essentially the film’s “Bella” – it’s clear this is a fantasy that wants to do things a little differently. Ethan might speak with a heavy southern drawl, but he’s a thoughtful soul, a keen reader of Kurt Vonnegut who can’t wait to escape his sleepy town and head to college.
Through the early insights into his character and the town around him, we observe how LaGravenese subverts and satirises the dark heart of closed-off southern conservatism, specifically as this pertains to the town’s religious zealots, spearheaded by the God-fearing de facto spokes-loon, Mrs. Lincoln (Emma Thompson).
Through one fiery exchange between her and Lena’s uncle, Macon (Jeremy Irons), we get a hilarious picture of blind belief gone awry that’s also tellingly true. But don’t dismiss the film as veiled pedagogy against the Church; there are a few benevolent persons of faith, specifically Ethan’s surrogate mother Amma (Viola Davis), who transfixes Lena with her belief in God despite her awareness of a very different incorporeal realm.
Englert’s Lena – yes, the “Edward” of the story – is admittedly a more ordinary oddball character, reclusive and pasty, and anticipating a critical event on the eve of her 16th birthday, as she will be “claimed” by either the forces of good or of bad.
Englert, an appealing lead who perfectly nails the dour cynicism of her character, is also alluring as a chirpier love interest once the relationship with Ethan begins to blossom. The palpable chemistry of the actors gives this romance a pulse that Twilight couldn’t even begin to aspire to, treating itself with a more grounded regard and steering clear of the suffocating portent that quickly sank that franchise’s early promise.
Despite running in at over two hours, there’s largely admiration to be had for LaGravenese’s devotion to character development over incident; the opening reel barely begins to delve into the otherworldly, instead selling us the frisson between Ethan and Lena, and building this imposing world of isolated ignorance in the remote south. Sure, not all the back-stories work – it seems like just about everyone has at least one dead relative in this town – but in creating a mood and an atmosphere, it is certainly successful.
It all builds to a finale that, like the Twilight films, has to suffer under ropey visual effects, but is largely permissible because there’s plenty going on beneath it, and LaGravenese smartly doesn’t overplay the sentiment card. Twists are unfurled without bombast, and things end on an emotionally gratifying note that will no doubt enrapture the teens who will mostly comprise its audience.
For adults taking their kids along, there’s also plenty to relish; Thompson and Irons are especially great fun as the hammy elders at opposite ends of the spectrum. Thompson, spouting a ridiculously exaggerated southern accent and getting to frolic around in silly corsets, is clearly having the most fun, while Emmy Rossum’s brief appearance as Lena’s sister Ridley – an evil temptress who has already been claimed by the dark forces – is deliciously sinister and brimming with sexual energy.
Though sure to do more for teenage girls than just about anyone else, it’s proof to all demographics that these stories can work on a broader level when filmmakers take care to assemble a good cast and furnish them with a script that’s actually had some consideration. This is a wiry slice of subversive Southern Gothic that will go down a treat with teens who consider themselves too smart for Twilight.
Beautiful Creatures is in cinemas now.
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