Like its lead character of Ethan, the supernatural teen romance Beautiful Creatures tries really hard to be charming and likeable. Alas, where Ethan ultimately succeeds, the movie itself just can’t quite pull it off.
Adapted from the popular series of young adult novels by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl, Beautiful Creatures tells the tale of high school senior Ethan, who finally meets the girl of his dreams (literally) only to find out she and her family are casters (don’t call them witches, it’s insulting). And to complicate matters more, it’s revealed that on Lena’s sixteenth birthday, there’s a fifty-fifty chance her soul may be claimed by darkness, turning her evil for the rest of her life. Hoping to achieve just that result, Lena’s mother, Sarafine – the evilest of the evil casters – sets in motion a scheme designed to end in Ethan’s death, an event which would surely drive the lovesick Lena to the dark side (complete with yellow Sith-like eyes). With time running out, it appears the only way Ethan and Lena will survive bodily or spiritually is to part ways and never see one another again.
Part Romeo & Juliet and part The Craft, Beautiful Creatures offers a pretty good setup for a teenage love story. And as long as the movie stays focused on the relationship between its leads, it works well enough. Alden Ehrenreich and Alice Englert have decent chemistry together and make convincing teenagers (even though both actors are obviously older than the roles they’re playing). Ethan and his personal library of “banned” books (Kerouac, Vonnegut, etc.) will be familiar to any boy who ever wished he could escape his small town trappings, while Lena’s alternating bouts of giggles and tantrums are pure sweet sixteen, though admittedly, most girls’ tantrums don’t involve calling down thunderstorms to rain on their boyfriends or spinning entire houses on their axis.
While amusing, it’s that last bit that points out some of the problems with Beautiful Creatures. The wit... er, casters in the movie are near omnipotent, able to alter weather patterns, call down lightning, bring forests to life, transform their appearance, possess the bodies of humans, and completely control the minds of unwitting mortals no matter how hard they resist. And yet Sarafine, rather than just striking Ethan dead, instead carries out a four-month-long master plan of Rube Goldergian complexity. The movie never adequately explains why she feels the need to work in secret. It’s made clear that casters have been publicly fighting alongside humans for centuries, even showing a flashback where Lena’s ancestor summons a tornado during a Civil War battle (how did Ken Burns miss documenting that one), so plenty of people should know they exist. And Lena’s family admits halfway through the movie that her estranged mother is coming to turn Lena evil by offing her boyfriend. So why doesn’t Sarafine just point a finger at the boy and put the whammy on him instead of sneaking around for a whole season?
Still, the movie can be forgiven that rather large plot hole, since otherwise there would be almost nothing to provide obstacles for the admittedly enjoyable teen romance. Unfortunately, rather than concentrate solely on Ethan and Lena’s teenage turmoils, where Beautiful Creatures really stumbles is in its feeble attempt to introduce some larger social commentary into the mix. The trouble begins right with the first syllable of Ethan’s opening narration, where it becomes painfully clear that Beautiful Creatures is going to be one of those movies in which everyone in the cast brushed up on their southern accents by watching old Foghorn Leghorn cartoons. The only exceptions are the absolutely authentic Viola Davis (always good to see her) and the hilarious Emma Thompson, who eschews Foghorn in favor of chewing through her every scene like the unholy offspring of Blanche DuBois and the Wicked Witch of the West.
In short, the movie lets us know right away we’re dealing with stereotypical knuckle-dragging backwoods hicks. And not just any knuckle-dragging backwoods hicks, mind you, but conservative Christian ones. (Oh no, not them!) You know, the kind of Christians Hollywood specializes in portraying – Christians who, when they’re not running around in public demanding God smite all liberals, Democrats, and homosexuals straight to hell (this scene actually appears in the movie), are busy denouncing books like To Kill A Mockingbird because they’re the work of Satan. (Sigh.) Would it have killed the screenwriters to look up Harper Lee’s novel on Google (a website which the film shamelessly promotes three or four times, so they know how to use it) and learn that the recent bans of Mockingbird around the United States have had nothing to do with disturbed followers of Jesus and everything to do with the book’s use of the “n” word? Perhaps the film would have been better served if they had left out one of the many expensive CGI sequences (it gets really cloudy when the casters get mad, we got it the first half dozen times) and devoted the money instead to a rewrite of the script which didn’t rely so much on lazy ham-handed stereotypes.
Like some warmed over Saturday morning public service message, the film hammers home again and again the idea that picking on people who are different is bad. Which is fine, but unfortunately, that’s the sum total of the film’s moral universe. In an early scene pivotal to the movie’s central theme (so much so that it’s repeated again almost verbatim near the end), Ethan asks Lena if the Bukowski book she’s reading is any good, to which Lena replies, “Define good.” It’s not a terrible question for a movie to ask, it’s just that Beautiful Creatures never really takes the time to come up with a satisfying answer.