Director: Richard LaGravenese
Runtime: 124 minutes
Just like clockwork, the Twilight series has found a successor. Trading vampires and werewolves for witches, authors Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl‘s Caster Chronicles‘ has hit theaters with much less fanfare but perhaps more intrigue. Gatlin, South Carolina’s secrets are a mixture of Hogwart’s affinity for the Muggle world and Bella’s supernatural-heavy Seattle backyard; the casters possess a division of light and dark like Voldemort’s Death Eaters and Dumbledore’s students as well as rites of passage similar to those of Jacob’s pack and Edward’s ‘vegetarian’ vamps. Actually, a better comparison might be saying it’s Harry Potter set inside the Southern comfort of Sookie Stackhouse’s Bon Temps. Either way, Beautiful Creatures‘ tale of young love between Ethan Wate (Alden Ehrenreich) and Lena Duchannes (Alice Englert) has the best and worst of them all.
In an inspiring bit of hiring, screenwriter Richard LaGravenese signed on early to adapt and direct the film almost immediately after the novel was published and optioned back in 2009. Best known for his Oscar-nominated script The Fisher King and documentary A Decade Under the Influence, putting him in charge of a fantasy franchise with big blockbuster potential is outside the box thinking at its finest and maybe exactly what the genre needs at a time when the dark arts have become somewhat tired. His decision to combine both traditional/practical effects with computer generated ones lends an authenticity missing in many of the new Hollywood spectacles and his ear for dialogue a perfect complement to a work riddled with quotations from some of literature’s most revered and controversial novelists and poets.
This literary adoration is a welcome trait because it shows how Beautiful Creatures would rather shine a spotlight on the independent, angst-ridden outcasts like Potter than the vain, angst-ridden ‘pretty people’ of Twilight. It’s junior year of high school and cliques have begun to break and reform into groups of vindictive, self-righteous conservatives using God as a weapon of hate and the intellectual free-spirits yearning for an outside perspective inside a town quick to mentally imprison. Ethan has forsaken the love of the prom queen for Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.‘s prose, living life with the wish of his recently passed mother pushing him to leave Gatlin the first chance he gets. He is the narrator of this tale—a boy dreaming of endless possibilities and a mysterious girl, days before the enigmatic Lena turns everything upside down.
It’s an outsider’s perspective that greatly enhances the audience’s introduction into this dark world of casters. We are intrigued by Lena’s quiet indifference and the town’s seemingly bottomless wealth of fear towards her ancestors’ surname Ravenwood just as Ethan is enamored by her confidence to shut up his ex-girlfriend Emily (Zoey Deutch) and her best friend Savannah’s (Tiffany Boone) haughty ways with a stunning ability to stand alone against the masses. She is a new and different wonder equally frightening and alluring, the secretive nature of her shut-in uncle Macon (Jeremy Irons) and his overgrown estate one more puzzle to solve while everyone else dismisses and defames them without a chance for explanation. These kids exist on the outskirts of their social spheres and as a result prove destined to fall in love.
He is of a lineage that has embraced the casters of Gatlin while she stands at the cusp of great power for either good or evil. While caster men can choose which direction their magic goes, the women are powerless to fight the moon’s decision of ‘true nature’ on their sixteenth birthday. The dark witch Sarafine has come to try and push Lena towards evil with the help of the girl’s cousin Ridley (Emmy Rossum) just as Macon has willingly turned from bad to good so he may stop them. It is a family conflict that escalates into powerful binding spells, mind control, and possession, scooping Ethan up into the fray and positioning him to either break a Civil War era curse of the Ravenwood family or ensure it remains intact.
LaGravenese never shies away from the inherent darkness involved, oftentimes raising the stakes to the blackened depths of the later Harry Potters with translucent flickers of history seen through a magical locket or the angry tenacity of forces not easily kept at bay. The acting talent and authentic depiction of adolescent love actually had me forgetting at times that this was young adult fiction until overwrought and overwritten prose about sacrifice and letting love go to set it free reminded me where I was. When a battle of the minds between Lena and Ridley that makes the dinner table spin at high speed looks laughably fake because of over-the-top theatrics despite being created by an actual revolving room, you have no choice but to frown. These are the moments that should invest you, not turn you away.
No, before a pitch black climax claims Lena and sets the tale off onto a path with the potential for effective later installments, it is the actors who keep us interested when the battle for the light proves boring. Irons is effective in a wasted role while Emma Thompson‘s duality of Christian zealot and pagan sorcerer is a highlight. Viola Davis excels as a protector between worlds and Rossum is a treat in her broad portrayal of villainy. But the real reason I stayed captivated was the leads. The daughter of director Jane Campion, Englert is accessible, sweet, smart, and absolutely vicious when needed while Tetro‘s Enrenreich is an endearing romantic you can’t help but wish was your friend. Theirs is the love that risks destroying our world as they grow and lead the charge to save it.
Beautiful Creatures opens in theaters on Thursday, February 13th.
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