Beautiful Creatures (2013)

Set in a small town in South Carolina, Beautiful Creatures is a teen romance whose trailers will remind scoffing audiences of Twilight, even if that isn’t exactly a fair comparison. In fact, with both the characters, the central themes, and the way the story unfolds, Beautiful Creatures isn’t anything like Twilight. Sure, they’re both romantic fantasies determined to appeal to young girls, but that’s mostly where the similarities end.

The lead is a male, Ethan Wate (Alden Ehrenreich), a teenager hoping to get through high school and eventually get into a college as far away from the town of Gatlin as possible. Some say the only thing to do in a small town is plan your escape. He’s a relatively normal kid, although each night he dreams about a girl. When this same girl, Lena Duchannes (Alice Englert), winds up moving to town and attending his school, he knows they’re destined to be together. It turns out, she dreams of him, too. Oh, and she’s also comes from a family of “casters,” or as we would call them, “witches.”

The central conflict comes from Lena’s upcoming 16th birthday, at which point the cosmos decide whether she’ll be a good caster or a bad one. Yes, in this world, female casters are “claimed” for one side or the other on their 16th birthday. Males are not. Ethan and Lena begin a romantic relationship, but she’s reluctant to make it serious because she knows she might turn evil. Meanwhile, some members of her family (Emma Thompson and Emmy Rossum) are trying to bring out the evil in her, while others (Jeremy Irons, primarily) are attempting to ensure she is claimed for good.

Now, explain this to me. If a female caster is “claimed” one way or another based on her true nature, then how can anyone influence this process? Doesn’t everyone just sort of have to wait and see? A true nature can’t exactly be altered by external forces. And what’s the difference between the good and evil ones anyway? The film doesn’t really make it clear, but both seem as if they’d be able to live relatively normal lives among the non-powered humans.

The whole mythology and world-building in a film like this one is insubstantial. There are multiple books in the Beautiful Creatures series, and this is the film that needs to establish what the rules are, why everything matters, and who everyone is. It does the last one relatively well, but the universe as a whole is more wishy-washy. Not being familiar with the books, I need the film to lay everything important out, and Beautiful Creatures doesn’t do that job well enough.

As a result, the climax is confusing and muddled. Why everything works the way it does at the end is explained only vaguely, as if there’s more to it but the filmmakers didn’t want to spend the proper amount of time to tell us. And this is with Beautiful Creatures running over the two-hour mark — and it feels it; this movie should have been no longer than 90 minutes. There’s already plenty of exposition, and a great deal of extra time when explanations could have organically been interwoven, but we’re left confused.

There are certainly good moments to Beautiful Creatures, and I think there are almost enough of them to make it worth seeing. The two leads, for example, are both quite good, even though they’re relative unknowns. They have a strong, believable chemistry, and the screenplay provides them with sharp, witty dialogue exchanges which are probably funnier than they have any right to be. Because of the actors, you can believe in their romance. Their scenes of falling in love are strong.

I also enjoyed the way that the film establishes the town of Gatlin, which, given its location and the fact that it is a small town, makes it the perfect location for some subtle — and not so subtle — poking at overly religious fanatics. I wouldn’t go so far as to say the film is anti-religious, if only because one of the characters (played by Viola Davis) acknowledges the existence of the casters and of God, but if you wanted to read that into it, you wouldn’t be stretching too far.

The supporting actors, save for perhaps Jeremy Irons, are all wasted. This is a film that has Emma Thompson, Emmy Rossum, and Viola Davis, and none of them get much to do. Thompson (spoiler alert?) becomes the main villain, but she has maybe five scenes, none of which showcase her talents. Rossum gets about three scenes in the whole movie, and while she’s fun in them, that’s not enough time to do much. Viola Davis didn’t even need to be in the movie; a lesser actor could have done just as much given how limited her role was.

It’s hard to recommend a film like Beautiful Creatures. Most people who want to see it are going to see it regardless of its quality, and it’s not good enough to overcome its weaknesses for those who aren’t in its target audience. It’s not bad and it won’t feel like a complete waste of time if you do choose to watch it. It has good lead actors who have strong chemistry and snappy dialogue, but the waste of its supporting cast and unclear universe building stop it from being a success, especially as the first chapter of what the studio will hope is a long series. Thankfully, it’s not just another Twilight re-tread, even if that’s what it looks like on the surface.

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