Beautiful Creatures: Better than Twilight, Anyway!

02/14/2013 12:00 PM |

Beautiful Creatures
Directed by Richard LaGravenese

Adaptations of YA novels have become go-to vehicles for veteran screenwriters looking to shore up their directing resume. I assume studios feel comfortable hiring them because they can bring a writer’s sensibility to the process of translating a novel onto the screen; put a less charitable way, movies like Beautiful Creatures seem so sensitive to the books, the accompanying mythology, and the mythology-loving fans that the good movie somewhere inside the novel stays mostly buried, only occasionally poking through.

I haven’t read the series of books that spawned the movie; it’s possible LaGravenese’s version is a vast improvement. It certainly improves on the Twilight template in that both of its teenage lovers have discernible personalities. The normal here is Ethan (Alden Ehrenreich), who is too handsome to be an outcast but too restless to feel satisfied in his hometown of Gatlin, South Carolina. Withdrawn from the high-school social order, he sticks images from his banned-book reading list on a bedroom-wall map (The Fountainhead‘s appearance there alongside Slaughterhouse-Five and Catcher in the Rye must be a token gesture to make up for the rest of the movie’s fairly unsubtle conservative-dinging). When mysterious new girl Lena Duchannes (Alice Englert) arrives in class, Pattinson-style, Ethan is drawn to her, and Ehrenreich keeps flashing a goofy, wide grin that practically has its own Southern drawl, while Englert, playing a genuine outcast, tries to resist his charm.

I could have watched a whole movie about Ethan and Lena, but Beautiful Creatures is a whole movie about Lena’s magical abilities—and turns some pretty cute mooning into the tedium of destiny. Lena is a witch, or “caster,” and on her upcoming 16th birthday she will be “claimed” by either the forces of darkness or the forces of light. She can feel herself trending dark, with her magic powers standing in for out-of-control teenage hormones, and her uncle Macon (Jeremy Irons!) insists that she must not form an attachment to Ethan if she wants to stay light. Darkness has already claimed her cousin Ridley (Emmy Rossum); it gives her weird orange dots on her eyes and a ton of costume changes.

This conflict leads to a lot of empty conversation; instead of Ethan and Lena learning more about each other, various casters pop up to deliver threatsposition about curses and caster history and what is to come. Many of these dialogue scenes are cut together in choppy one-shots; after admiring his foppish outfits and Southern-Brit hybrid accent, I wondered through many of Jeremy Irons’s scenes if he was on set with the other actors. He and Rossum take turns chewing scenery rather than working together, so even the over-the-top stuff feels discrete and hemmed-in.

The movie seems designed to appeal not just to the Twilight crowd, but to librarians secretly disgusted with Twilight‘s heavy circulation: the heroes are aided by a wise librarian (Viola Davis), and uncover a secret library-within-library containing the endless, excruciating, and often muddled details of the property’s mythology, which Lena studies during an exciting montage of reading. Like the movie’s rebuke of small-town small-mindedness, it’s a nice gesture that doesn’t have much onscreen pop. LaGravenese performs little visual interpretation; there are a few delirious Southern Gothic touches, like a shot of Rossum and Ethan’s nerdy best friend (Thomas Mann) making out on a swamp raft as gators swirl around them, but most of the magic powers manifest themselves in sub-par special effects.

More surprising, LaGravenese’s screenplay is often muddy. As often as the movie expounds on its backstory and mythology, the details of the magic we actually see onscreen are often maddeningly unclear. At some point, the spirit of Lena’s dark-witch mother possesses the ultra-conservative town hectorer Mrs. Lincoln (Emma Thompson), and the movie never really explains if this is an occasional or permanent disguise, or what happens to the real Mrs. Lincoln during these possessions. The movie just keeps throwing stuff at its young lovers, presuming that young love + supernatural junk = romance (and profit). In Twilight movies, vampiric ridiculousness provided respite from dead-eyed relationship twitching; here, the fantastical elements look pedestrian next to Ehrenreich and Englert just hanging out.