By Caryn James | James on Screens February 14, 2013 at 9:00AM
Beautiful Creatures, the story of high-school students in love – only one of them with supernatural powers – is bound to be compared to the Twilight movies, but that’s just wrong. Richard LaGravanese’s sumptuous-looking film is crisply directed, wonderfully cast and far wittier than the drippy, earnest Twilight Saga. Better to think of Beautiful Creatures as a Harry Potter substitute with wizards and muggles facing adulthood, a film smart enough to have fun with its magical premise.
The small South Carolina town where the film is set is otherworldly, although not in the supernatural sense; it’s a place of backroads and limited expectations, where the movie theater marquee perpetually gets its late-arriving titles wrong, as in: Interception with Leo DiCaprio. Ethan (Alden Ehrenreich), who is longing to escape to college, falls for the new girl in school, Lena Duchannes, who has come to live with her rich uncle in the ramshackle, creepy house known as Ravenwood Manor.
The casting couldn’t be better. Alice Englert gives Lena a droll facade that masks her deeper fears: she is a Caster, (they prefer that name to witch) and is about to turn 16, the age at which her powers will decisively turn toward good or evil. Englert (who happens to be Jane Campion’s daughter) is also fantastic in Sally Potter’s new Ginger and Rosa, and together these films establish her as an actor of great versatility and nuance. Jeremy Irons is impeccable as her soigne uncle, Macon Ravenwood, who has redirected his own powers of darkness and is confident Lena can turn toward the light. He has also created an unexpected interior for Ravenwood Manor, a visual joke I won’t ruin.
And Emma Thompson has a dual role. She starts off as the prim, church-going mother of Ethan’s best friend, but that frumpily-dressed body is soon inhabited by Lena’s evil mother, Sarafine, who is as cynical as her brother Macon is hopeful. Love, Sarafine says with Thompson’s dry, amusing delivery, is “created by mortals to give their females something to play with instead of power.” Hm, now that is an argument worth having.
Emmy Rossum is Lena’s mischievous, femme fatale cousin (in a much smaller role than the film’s publicity would suggest). Eileen Atkins, with lavender hair, plays Lena’s grandmother and Margo Martindale her aunt; they are practically walk-on roles, but fun to see. Viola Davis is always good, but she is burdened with the one sober role, as the town librarian and Ethan’s surrogate mother.
Lena has some tricks she can pull, like making it rain on Ethan – only on Ethan. He has a dream of being in the Civil War that turns out to be more than a dream. And it’s fair to say that under the romance and magic, the film is also about destiny and choice, about whether you can determine your own fate. But ultimately Beautiful Creatures is superficial and entertaining, a colorful, gleeful escape into a near-human world. Philippe Rousselot’s (A River Runs Through It) cinematography and the costumes by Jeffrey Kurland (Woody Allen’s costume designer) add immensely to those surface pleasures.
Beautiful Creatures is not a drama to take seriously; it is a vibrant, captivating tale with a tongue-in-cheek sense of play.