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Beautiful Creatures

Movie Review

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All the box-office omens were auspicious for Beautiful Creatures. A tale of paranormal romance based on the first novel in a popular teen series (by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl), it drew inevitable comparisons to Twilight. Adapted and directed by Richard LaGravenese, best known these days for sticky fare such as P.S. I Love You, the film was released on Valentine’s Day. It proceeded to bomb royally.

Here’s the final twist: Beautiful Creatures is not that bad. Yes, it’s about teens falling in love, and yes, there are witches and atrocious fake Southern accents and some painfully stupid caricatures of small-town life. But this movie has things the Twilight series and recent Nicholas Sparks flicks lack: stuff happening. Stakes. A sense of humor. A female lead whose choices are not limited to sacrificing everything for the chance to stare into her boyfriend’s eyes for eternity. Oh, and thespians Viola Davis, Emma Thompson and Jeremy Irons, the last two chowing down on scenery and having a high old time.

In short, this is a perfectly solid coming-of-age fantasy, closer in spirit to “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” than to the recent spate of Stephenie Meyer clones, that will probably appeal to teens and teens-at-heart who catch it on TBS next year.

Considerable credit belongs to the newcomer leads, Alden Ehrenreich and Alice Englert (daughter of director Jane Campion), who give emotional weight and charm to their stereotypical roles. He’s Ethan Wate, the dimpliest, quirkiest, most freethinking boy in his hidebound South Carolina town. She’s Lena Duchannes, a sullen newcomer who belongs to a clan of witches (“casters,” she informs Ethan, is the PC term) and lives with her reclusive uncle (Irons) in an antebellum mansion that’s all picturesque decay on the outside and Tim Burton-esque sets within.

Lena is sullen because, well, she’s 15 — but also because female casters are “claimed” for good or evil on their 16th birthdays, and they don’t get to choose which. That totally sucked for Lena’s cousin, Ridley (Emmy Rossum), who was transformed in seconds from a sweet, winsome girl into a snarling Siren who marches through town in black lace and practically eats boys alive.

Wait, or did it suck? More than a few tween girls have fantasized about becoming femmes fatales the instant they put on high heels and lipstick, and Beautiful Creatures taps into those lurid imaginings with its silly central conceit. Of course, we all know that doing good or evil is a choice, that real people don’t embody absolutes, and that Lena will eventually attain moral autonomy with help from her love for Ethan. She’s the heroine, after all. But the film acknowledges that, for a girl accustomed to being ostracized at school, sexy, apocalyptic power might be kind of tempting.

David Edelstein of New York Magazine is right to say that, while Beautiful Creatures is a better movie than the Twilight series, “it’s nowhere near as potent” — or as memorable. There’s just something about a chaste slab of man-marble who secretly wants to devour you that makes some girls (and women) faint dead away. That’s why even people who resist the appeal of Twilight — especially those people — can’t stop talking about it.

Beautiful Creatures is just another passable entertainment, not a portal into a disturbing part of the human psyche. But if I were choosing something for a teenager, I’d rather she see a film where the heroine’s soul mate not only makes her laugh but doesn’t hesitate to tell her when she’s being a self-involved pain in the ass. You know, kind of like in a real relationship.

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