Based on the first novel in a young adult fantasy series, Beautiful Creatures is a clear bid to ignite a franchise capable of filling the hole left in teenage hearts by the end of the Twilight saga.
If only the filmmakers had tried to make those young hearts pound over a better movie. There’s potential here, a decent story and a cast well-stocked with grownup cinematic luminaries. But this supernatural Gothic romance is a prisoner of its own demons, which include sketchy Southern accents, tacky and tired stereotypes and faux homespun dialogue in the wrong mouths. “I missed the exit to fascinating” or “Some girls are mad dogs, son — you can either run or shoot!” seem unlikely folksy wisdom to spill from the mouths of 16-year-old boys.
The story swaps the Twilight roles and happily provides an ingenue with more pep than Twilight’s bland Bella (though less animal magnetism than Robert Pattinson’s Edward Cullen, which is going to be a problem for the target audience). Ethan (Alden Ehrenreich) is a high school junior in dead-end Gatlin, S.C., a town with nothing much to show for itself except a fanatical devotion to its Confederate past. Ethan is a rebel in the mildest ways possible. He sings along with Bob Dylan and loves to read, especially Kurt Vonnegut. He refuses to continue dating the shallow popular girl and can’t wait to graduate and get out of town.
But Ethan, whose mother is dead and father so reclusive we never see him, has a secret: He’s plagued by dreams of a mysterious dark-haired beauty. Her name is Lena Duchannes, and one day she appears in class. She lives in the secluded, dilapidated old mansion far from decent folk with her creepy uncle (Jeremy Irons, who for the role has apparently borrowed a floor-length jacket from Prince’s Cream period to throw over some pastel Captain Kirk casualwear). The popular girls say Lena and her uncle are devil worshippers, mostly because all the religious people in Gatlin are hysterical praise-Jesusy lunatics who gather in the middle of the night to watch lightning strike and pronounce it a demonic, not meteorological, event.
They’re right about one thing, though: Lena (Alice Englert, daughter of filmmaker Jane Campion) is different. She’s a “caster,” and on her looming 16th birthday supernatural forces will “claim” her for good or for evil. Male casters can determine their own fates, but Lena has no choice. The whole process is like the Sorting Hat at Hogwarts, only sexist. Ethan tells Lena he knows she’s good at heart, but Lena is skeptical. They enlist the help of the town librarian (Viola Davis; seriously, that Viola Davis) to try and thwart the inevitable.
Also to be dealt with: a curse, time travel and a Civil War re-enactment, which would be enough to make anyone call on the dark forces of destruction. Director Richard LaGravenese (P.S. I Love You, Freedom Writers) can’t quite make up his mind whether he wants Beautiful Creatures to be pure Southern Gothic or Dark Shadows Lite, so we get a silly dinner scene with a spinning table and pink-haired relatives that undermines the film’s dark tone.
On the bright side, Emma Thompson seems to be enjoying herself as an outraged Bible thumper, and Eileen Atkins and Emmy winner Margo Martindale (Justified) make brief appearances as members of Lena’s bizarre family; perhaps they’ll score recurring roles if there’s a sequel. There may be; Beautiful Creatures leaves its story room to continue, and its message of female empowerment is solid. If only there were a spell to make us forget all the mistakes.
Cast: Alden Ehrenreich, Alice Englert, Jeremy Irons, Viola Davis, Emma Thompson, Emmy Rossum.
Writer/director: Richard LaGravenese. From the novel by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl.
Producers: Broderick Johnson, Andrew A. Kosove, Molly Smith, Erwin Stoff.
A Warner Bros. release. Running time: 124 minutes. Violence, scary images, some sexual material. Playing at: area theaters.