Thursday, February 28, 2013

Like: Beautiful Creatures

Aaaand somehow we've managed to find ourselves writing this about two weeks later, when the film has already slipped back and all but disappeared from the box office roster.  It's too bad. The first quarter of the year is always a mixed bag of genre screw-ups and Oscar leftovers. It's the time when Hollywood is resting on its laurels, preparing to launch a full-scale cash-grabbing initiative of summer blockbuster hype and late season prestige pictures. Occasionally, they'll slip a potential franchise starter into the mix. Especially, it seems, if that franchise is the sort designed to spread via word of mouth through the hallowed halls of middle schools and high schools nationwide.  Beautiful Creatures is one such film.  Based on the co-authored young adult novel of the same title, the film is essentially just another supernatural romance spawned from the torturous reign of Twilight.  Boy meets girl. Rural country. Strange powers. Mad love. Bad things a brewin'. If I had to guess, you're already suppressing the urge to projectile vomit during one fiercely laborious eye roll. 
Before you do, though, I'd urge you to give Beautiful Creatures a chance.  Did you just read that line a second time? You should have. Yes. I said it. I said you should give Beautiful Creatures a chance. Beautiful Creatures is not Twilight. The book wasn't, and the movie veers even further away from the somber, self-pitying anti-feminism of that vampiric mess.  Granted, it has definite problems of its own, but it's exactly the type of frothy, flaky fun I feel comfortable recommending to anyone who enjoys the following:

1. Teen witches.
2. A Southern Gothic aesthetic
3. Oddly integrated Charles Bukowski references 
4. Emma Thompson and Jeremy Irons with full-blown Southern accents
5. Outfits stolen from the closet of Stevie Nicks
6. Super campy melodrama

That's enough. Beautiful Creatures is sort of what would happen if Twilight had a teen-friendly baby with the first season of True Blood, all the vampires turned into witches, and someone snuck in and rewrote the dialogue so that it was effectively self-aware.  It's pure, twangy mayhem with a magical spin and all the stupid-looking contact lenses you could ever hope for. 
The film deviates from the outline of the novel quite a bit, but the general premise remains the same. Ethan Wate (Aiden Ehrenreich) is a surprisingly bright charmer of a high schooler who deals with a life trapped in his Bible-Belt backwards village by reading every banned book he can get his hands on. His life is dramatically changed with the arrival of bitter, glowering goth girl Lena Duchannes (Alice Englert).  Lena is nothing like the backstabbing, phony belles Ethan is used to bearing through gritted teeth. Not, mind you, because she's a mysterious new girl cipher like Bella Swann, but because she displays a sharp wit, her own personality, and seems to loathe his classmates as much as he does.  Of course, Lena is harboring a secret.  The Southern belles are quick to label her a Satanist; the dirty-blooded demon relative of the town's bad-mouthed reclusive aristocrat, Macon Ravenwood (Jeremy Irons).  She's not a Satanist, of course, just a Caster (essentially a witch, or, someone who uses magic) who has been sent to live with her uncle in preparation for her 16th birthday, at which point she will be claimed by the light or the dark.
Though the film has heavy plotting issues, and seems to struggle to evenly disperse the key parts of the book's narrative across its mid-sized frame, the film manages to succeed in spite of itself.  Beautiful Creatures suffers from relative incoherence if you break down its more expository, plot-driven bits.  We're not sure, for example, how the claiming works or why we need the Civil War flashbacks that permeate the film. It's true, too, that female adolescence is dramatized (in extreme mood swings of violence and the whole light/dark fate thing) in a way that some may read as tipping towards a misogynistic interpretation.  With all that in mind, there remains something pleasant about the film.  Its ornamental trappings make for an entertaining winter bauble that gets closer to something legitimately romantic than Twilight ever did. It's a good-bad movie that tips more towards the light than the dark, with some delightful camp dished out by respected actors. Gleefully over-the-top meltdowns from Emma Thompson aside, however, there's enough character development and well-meaning quirk here to make this audience member interested in the fates of the individual characters, and even (for a bit) in Lena and Ethan's budding relationship.  If you can't appreciate the overtly gothic elements of the presentation, chances are you'll at least appreciate seeing an on-screen supernatural couple actually engage in conversation.

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