Young love is messy and so is Beautiful Creatures, a post-Twilight supernatural romance movie, aimed at the Valentine’s Day audience. Based on the first of the four-novel Caster Chronicles series by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl, the film blends witchcraft, small-town conservatism and the usual tale of mismatched lovers. It starts well. Adapted by director-writer Richard LaGravenese, who wrote the screenplays for The Fisher King and The Ref, the early scenes are peppered with sardonic commentary from 17-year-old Ethan (Alden Ehrenreich), a high-school misfit who’s the opposite of proud of his South Carolina hometown, where only “the stupid and the stuck” remain.
“They keep re-enacting the Civil War like it’s gonna come out different,” he moans.
His father never seen and his mother dead, Ethan lives independently, occasionally helped out by his late mother’s best friend, the town librarian and historian, Amma (Viola Davis). In preparation for his imminent exit to a faraway college, he seeks out books on the school library’s banned list, works by Ayn Rand, Henry Miller and Kurt Vonnegut, and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.
The town of Gatling has its own version of Lee’s reclusive Boo Radley. In the ramshackle and mysterious house on the outside of town, Ravenwood Manor, lives the rarely seen town weirdo, Macon Ravenwood, a reputed Satanist but also scion of the town’s founding family. Things get shaken up when his niece, a dark-haired, 15-year-old beauty named Lena (Alice Englert), comes to live with him and enrolls in the local high school. Ethan immediately recognizes her as a kindred soul – she reads Charles Bukowski and wears too much mascara – and also the girl who he has repeatedly seen in his dreams, set on a Civil War battlefield.
Her religious fundamentalist classmates decide Lena is an agent of the devil and pester her until she’s irked enough to telekinetically blow the windows out of her classroom – evidently confirming their suspicions. Soon Ethan learns that the courtly Macon and Lena are part of a family of witches, or “casters,” as they prefer (as in spell casters). When Lena turns 16, she will go through a female-only ritual called the Claiming, which determines whether she will be a bad or good caster for the rest of eternity. In either case, she shouldn’t be hooking up with a mortal.
What promised to be a teen screwball comedy with a supernatural twist soon descends into special-effects overkill and camp acting from the overqualified supporting cast, with British thespians Jeremy Irons and Emma Thompson hamming it up like players in a Christmas pantomime. Irons, as the Southern aristocrat with a touch of Bela Lugosi, plays Chopin and drawls on about the “voluminous backsides” of the local women folk. Thompson shows up in a double role – as a busybody named Mrs. Lincoln, and as the boisterously evil, shape-shifting “caster” Sarafine Duchannes.
Also arriving in town in preparation for Lena’s significant 16th birthday is her sexy cousin, Ridley (Emmy Rossum), who has already gone to the dark side. That means she drives a BMW convertible, walks around in black, see-through lingerie and seduces young men – apparently as an example of the tragic future that might befall Lena.
Within the needlessly complicated script and CGI special-effects overkill, there are some promising moments. Ehrenreich (Tetro and the upcoming Stoker) has an aw-shucks warmth that’s more appealing than the usual dreamboat-with-cheekbones teen lover, and Alice Englert (daughter of Australian film director Jane Campion) is an intelligent, subtle young actress. Yet – forgive the pun – there’s nothing much at stake here for a young witch plotting her future: The Southern-fundamentalist rubes are irritatingly easy targets and, Lena, as a girl rebel, has to make the choice between becoming a trouble-causing hottie or a mildly sarcastic young woman who likes to read. I can’t wait for the sequel where she has to face a really tough decision, like choosing a college major.