Southern gothic meets superpowers in the knowingly silly “Beautiful Creatures,” like some crazy cross-breeding of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and the "X-Men." No doubt designed to follow in the human-supernatural-romance footsteps of “Twilight,” this new film similarly allows fans of the books (in this case, by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl) to take the proceedings seriously while allowing civilians to chuckle at the delicious excess of it all.
Writer-director Richard LaGravenese makes the love story smart, sweet and believable while letting things go crazy once the film’s witches (or “casters,” as they prefer to be called) start throwing their powers around.
Our hero Ethan (Alden Ehrenreich) longs to flee his hometown of sleepy Gatlin, S.C., a town he says people are either too dumb or too stuck to ever escape. He consumes banned books like “Slaughterhouse-Five” and “Tropic of Cancer” and plots his eventual departure after high school.
At the beginning of his junior year, his school gets an all-too-rare new face: Lena Duchannes (Alice Englert), who has moved into the creepy Ravenwood mansion with her uncle, the reclusive Macon Ravenwood (Jeremy Irons). Ethan and Lena fall for each other, but their courtship is more prickly than swoony, involving a shared love of forbidden literature. (She turns him on to Bukowski — and this is one of those rare movies where characters who bond over books actually appear to have read them.)
Macon objects to their relationship because Lena is a caster, and on her upcoming 16th birthday, her nature will determine whether she will use her powers for the light or for the dark. Hoping for the latter are her cousin Ridley (Emmy Rossum, sporting a series of Jeffrey Kurland–designed costumes that will inspire the next several seasons of “RuPaul’s Drag Race”) and her estranged mother Sarafine, who’s currently occupying the body of local religious busybody Mrs. Lincoln (Emma Thompson).
We’ve pretty much seen this all before, from the star-crossed lovers (even “Warm Bodies” wears its “Romeo and Juliet” roots on its undead sleeves) to the lessons about determining your own path in life (Lena’s choice makes her the Teen Vogue version of the Iron Giant), but LaGravenese imbues the material with a giddy adrenaline that overpowers any feeling of familiarity.
It helps that he’s got such a strong ensemble of actors, from relative newcomers Englert (the daughter of director Jane Campion) and Ehrenreich to a deep roster of character actors including Eileen Atkins, Viola Davis, Kyle Gallner, Thomas Mann and Pruitt Taylor Vince. (To paraphrase Leonardo DiCaprio in “Django Unchained”: When Margo Martindale turns up in a movie, you have my curiosity. When Margo Martindale turns up in a movie holding a live peacock, you have my attention.)
If you can get past this movie’s terrible trailer (not to mention post-“Twilight” fatigue), you may find yourself giving into the scenery-chewing, weather-manipulating treats of this wild ride. That “Beautiful Creatures” can offer both sumptuous silliness and a teen couple whose relationship actually matters is its own particular brand of magic.