A sweet love story, lost in a witch’s cauldron
By Michael O’Sullivan
Thursday, February 14, 2013
Wow. Just wow.
That pretty much sums up my reaction to “Beautiful Creatures,” a movie so schizoid in its extremes of pleasure and pain that it’s hard to know how to weigh its contradictions, or even where to begin separating them.
On the plus side, this “Twilight”-esque tale of paranormal teen love -- which centers on the relationship between a human high school boy and a 15-year-old witch, or “caster” -- is anchored by two surprisingly solid and sweet performances. As the handsome but bookish Ethan, Alden Ehrenreich has charm to burn, narrating the film with wisecracking good humor and lighting up the screen with an unforced grace. In the role of his literally bewitching crush, Lena the teenage witch, Alice Englert is just as appealing. The actress, who is the daughter of filmmakers Jane Campion and Colin Englert, may not exactly be Hollywood pretty, but she’s got oodles of presence, not to mention a shyly captivating smile.
Best of all, this pair has real chemistry. You’ll have no trouble believing that these two kids could be a couple, even considering their incompatibility.
Adapted for the screen by director Richard LaGravenese from the young-adult novel by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl, the story captivates, at least initially. There’s a nice sense of suspense as Ethan starts to court Lena, a slightly Goth-y newcomer to his sleepy South Carolina home town. For the first half of the film, it isn’t clear what is going on, as the town’s devout Christians ostracize Lena for her strange ways, which include an ability to shatter windows and a strange affinity for lightning.
For his part, Ethan seems to be losing his grip on reality, thanks to Lena’s uncle (a deliciously loopy Jeremy Irons), who zaps the boy with a bit of hocus-pocus to discourage him from dating his niece.
That’s the good news.
The bad news is that LaGravenese just doesn’t seem to know how to rein in the film’s more fantastical plot elements. As she approaches her 16th birthday, Lena must face the possibility that she could be “claimed” by the unwholesome side of her powers, unless she’s strong enough to resist it. Advocating for the black arts is her mother (Emma Thompson), who suddenly shows up with Lena’s cousin, the evil witch Ridley (Emmy Rossum), to advocate for the more unsavory side of necromancy. The two display a histrionic lack of restraint that puts “Mommie Dearest” to shame.
At this point, the movie isn’t just over the top; it’s cray-cray. A showdown between Lena and Ridley features a spinning dining room table, rendered with a low-budget special effect that looks like something out of “Wizards of Waverly Place.” LaGravenese seems to have borrowed other stylistic touches from such parodies of the paranormal as “Vampires Suck” and the recent “Dark Shadows” remake.
That’s a shame really, because there’s lots to like here, including a relatively subdued performance by Viola Davis as Amma, a sort of occult librarian who helps Lena research ways in which she can resist her mother’s Darth Vader-like influence and hang on to her boyfriend.
LaGravenese made his name as a writer, adapting other people’s books (“The Bridges of Madison County”). As a director, his career has been lackluster at best (“Living Out Loud”).
His screenplay for “Beautiful Creatures” is sharp and witty, considering the needlessly complicated source material. His cast is stellar, and the chemistry between his young stars magical.
But too much of rest of the movie, like Thompson’s monstrous mother, is an unholy mess.
Contains obscenity, sensuality, scary images and some violence.
An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of director Richard LaGravenese.