Let us pause a moment to reflect on the fallen…
Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events (2004), Eragon (2006), The Golden Compass (2007), The Seeker: The Dark is Rising (2007), City of Ember (2008), The Spiderwick Chronicles (2008), Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant (2009), I Am Number Four (2011)
These are all movies adapted from the first books of best-selling, young adult fiction series, and while each of them had hopes of spawning cinematic franchises along the lines of Harry Potter and Twilight… all of them failed. The high rate of disappointment hasn’t quenched Hollywood’s thirst though, and many, many more YA adventures are hitting screens in the next few years.
The newest one, and happily, one of the best in some time, is the supernatural themed Beautiful Creatures. The film follows the destined but doomed romance between a mortal teen yearning to escape his backwater hometown and a girl whose upcoming sixteenth birthday will see her claimed by either the forces of light or the patrons of the dark.
“Love is a spell created to give females something to play with in place of power…”
Ethan Wate (Alden Ehrenreich) dreams of the day he can leave the podunk town of Gatlin, South Carolina to head someplace that values literature over ignorance, but it’s not easy in a town with “twelve churches, one library and no Starbucks.” He prefers sticking his head into the pages of “Slaughterhouse-Five” over his on again/off again girlfriend, but aside from having a dead mother and an invalid father he’s a normal Southern boy. Lena Duchannes (Alice Englert), by contrast, is far from normal. Her family founded Gatlin, but in their absence, whispers and rumors have grown like Spanish moss throughout the community.
She’s returning to town after years abroad and is instantly targeted for her devil-worshipping ways, witchy tendencies and “seductive quirkiness.” Little do her classmates know, but two of those accusations are accurate. Ethan’s drawn to her, but his well-meaning hormones are thwarted by her protective and mysterious Uncle Macon (Jeremy Irons), her trouble-making cousin Ridley (Emmy Rossum) and his best friend’s bible-thumping mother, Mrs. Lincoln (Emma Thompson). As the days count down to Lena’s birthday and the promise of a life-altering event, Ethan struggles to find just the right gift as well as save her soul from falling into evil.
Richard LaGravenese (The Fisher King) adapted and directed from book one of Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl‘s four part “Caster Chronicles,” and he immediately gets right what so many of these films don’t. Ethan and Lena are relatable from the very beginning as interesting, fleshed out teens, and Ethan especially comes across as extremely likeable, smart and humorous. Much of the film itself shares those traits with a casual likeability about it and some very funny jokes with topics as diverse as Titanic, blowjobs and Nancy Reagan earning big laughs.
Ehrenreich and Englert both radiate charisma and personality, another improvement over most YA films, and you believe not only their affection for each other but their desire for life itself. The supporting cast is a mix of faces familiar and new with the standouts being Irons who delights when he refers to the townsfolk as ”miniscule minds and sexually frustrated housewives with voluminous backsides” in his flexible Southern accent, Thompson who gets to cut loose as a delightful baddie and Rossum whose ridiculously sexy performance forced me to immediately dub her Yummy Rossum. Viola Davis also makes an appearance as the keeper of knowledge, aka the town’s librarian, but the fact that her role basically exists for exposition purposes is evident in her performance.
The movie also looks pretty damn good. Exteriors are filled with the flora familiar to anyone from the South, and the town’s moisture-filled air creates an almost palpable sensation. The inside of Macon Ravenwood’s vine-encrusted mansion is a mix of styles but always eye-catching and sharp. Action and effects set-pieces are solidly entertaining, and while not all of the CGI feels top-notch, most of it succeeds well enough to make the magic and real world feel as one.
The magic can’t last forever though as the plot takes over for personality in the film’s third act to detrimental effect. The story that had been taking its time building a natural mystery is suddenly jammed to bursting with family history, flashbacks, multiple library visits and more. It’s all unnecessarily confusing at times, and even as it feels busy and overstuffed parts of it still manage to drag. The film could stand to lose twenty minutes or so, and strangely it could all probably come from this third act.
The odds are not usually with these YA franchise hopefuls, but the recent success of The Hunger Games and the inherent quality of Beautiful Creatures bode well for the legion of writers still stabbing away at their keyboards in the hopes of YA stardom. Even better news? One franchise attempt thought DOA has since made a miraculous recovery… a sequel to Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief is already in post-production. So, know hope, YA fans.
Beautiful Creatures is a fun, entertaining and suitably dramatic movie, and while the smartly atypical ending allows closure, there’s more to this story that I would like to see. Here’s hoping that millions of teenage moviegoers get it right this time too.
The Upside: Both lead characters are well written and wonderfully performed; script is sharp and funny; cinematography and set design are often beautiful and atmospheric; Yummy Rossum
The Downside: Third act is muddled in its story and actions resulting in an underwhelming finale; about 20 minutes too long
On the Side: Alice Englert is the daughter of Academy Award-winning director Jane Campion