by Katie Gile
Set in the murky swamps and vine-draped woods of the fictional Gatlin, South Carolina, “Beautiful Creatures” is the gothic tale of teenager Ethan Wate who bridles at the meager offerings of his tiny town. Surrounding himself with banned books by day and dreaming of a mysterious girl by night, Ethan lives in restlessness by his late mother’s words:
“There are two kinds of people in Gatlin: people too stupid to leave and people
too stuck to move.”
Ethan’s world changes when he meets the mysterious Lena Duchannes, who has a troubled past and power she doesn’t quite understand. What follows is an opulent, if juvenile tale of love, magic and mystery in the Deep South.
Director and screenwriter Richard LaGravenese delivers a quick and witty script. Written with an ear to the literary ground and a sharp tongue, “Beautiful Creatures” pokes appropriate fun at the backward thinking and paranoia that run rampant in the tiny Southern town. Beginning with a “bless your heart, sugar” and ending with a serene viciousness that only Southern belles could master before now, LaGravenese’s writing is snappy and delightfully harsh.
It’s in the strange juxtaposition of the black-and-white, uber-conservative Christian surroundings and the colorful spirituality dancing around the periphery and referencing everything from Paganism to Voodoo that “Beautiful Creatures” provides many layers of intrigue and never allows the audience to say they’ve seen it before.
If anything, this collision of religion and the supernatural is most akin to the down-south ambience found in HBO’s “True Blood,” but without all the gratuitous violence, blood and sex.
But what “Beautiful Creatures” lacks in the R-rating-makers, it boasts in spectacle. Clearly created with the idea that “More is more,” the production design of “Beautiful Creatures” was impressive, if a little ostentatious. Its baroque aesthetic takes any and every opportunity to add sequins, lace, glitter, feathers and show a little more flesh. But all this withstanding, the film never looks tacky, only fun and covet-worthy. The use of existing and created structures, reminiscent of a grander time, provides a veritable backbone and adds an impeccable sadness to the over-the-top look.
Alden Ehrenreich is a perfect Ethan Wate, his Buddy Holly look and effortlessly earthy charisma carrying the film’s action. Toting his battered copy of “Of Mice and Men” or “slaughterhouse Five,” he’s persistent and enigmatic, his ambitious and creative energies buzzing from within. As a romantic lead to Lena, Ehrenreich is strong and provides a feasible mate to the teenage witch.
Playing said young witch, or “caster,” Alice Englert is demure and subtle. Englert says surprisingly little for such a major player. Her calm presence as Lena Duchannes is powerful and grounding to the grandiosity of the film as a whole. In a battle metaphorically similar to the one every teenage girl fights in realizing her potential without losing herself in the process, Englert is intense.
Injecting sumptuous life into the town of Gatlin is a stellar supporting cast, including Jeremy Irons, Emma Thompson, Viola Davis, and Emmy Rossum.
Thompson chews the scenery as Mrs. Lincoln/Sarafine, playing a Helena Bonham Carter-esque villainess and it’s great fun to watch. But where Thompson overacts with intrigue and a multitude of layers, Rossum’s similarly over-the-top performance is monotonous. Though she plays a character who struts on the dark side in lace and little else, Rossum can’t seem to own the role of siren.
As Gatlin’s covert spiritual protector and Seer Anma, Viola Davis is superb. With her uncanny stillness and inner fire, Davis adds more dimension to “Beautiful Creatures” even in moments of silence. And Jeremy Irons, who serves as Lena’s uncle and guardian, is delightfully sharp. His role as a dark caster fighting to be light gives him undeniable presence and dynamism.
Overall, “Beautiful Creatures” is striking in its design and the spirited, gothic nature of its story. Though it may appeal to the preteen in all of us, the point is: it appeals. For a guilty pleasure at the box office, definitely give it a try!