Feb 13 2013 2:00pm

“We Make Our Own Minds”: Beautiful Creatures

Beautiful Creatures movie review Alice Englert Alden Ehrenreich

As the thunder crashed and lightning blazed on the dramatic opening credits of new film Beautiful Creatures I found myself wondering who exactly were the devastating souls described in the title. At first I assumed it must be the Casters, the seemingly immortal beings who could manipulate elements, energy, and the human mind with their spells.

Like its supernatural protagonists, Beautiful Creatures the film—based off the quartet of novels by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl—is similarly ethereal and forbidding. On the first day of junior year, Ethan Wate (Alden Ehrenreich) meets Lena Duchannes (Alice Englert), the girl he’s been dreaming of for weeks. Their prophetic encounter makes more sense when Ethan learns Lena is a Caster, and that on her sixteenth birthday her powers will be claimed for either the Light or the Dark.

But even with this dramatic countdown in place, the movie never takes itself too seriously. It’s a spirited, compelling, funny story of young love.

What I find most charming about Beautiful Creatures is how it reverses the typical human girl/supernatural guy dynamic we see in Twilight, Warm Bodies, and other recent adaptations of Young Adult books. This isn’t love at first sight: Lena is prickly and defensive, so used to being chased out of town that she snaps back at the first mortal to take her on her own terms. And whereas the audience has suffered through seven years of Bella Swan stumbling over her own Converse sneakers, here it’s Ethan who’s prone to fainting and insomnia.

And yet, no matter how painfully his puny mortality is compared to the Casters’ invincibility, Ethan still radiates. We have to credit Ehrenreich for this dynamic performance. He sputters and gulps and snarks and retorts and dances around every sourpuss excuse from Lena and every truly dangerous encounter with her family. His personality is undeniable and is what makes you buy this fledgling, forbidden romance.

Beautiful Creatures movie review Alice Englert Alden Ehrenreich dinner scene Emmy Rossum

That said, it can’t be just the young lovers who carry the star-crossed conflict on their own. The two families must be convincingly intimidating. On Ethan’s side, there’s really just his guardian figure Amma (Viola Davis, whose presence elevates the rest of the cast). Lena’s Caster family is peppered with fun performances from recognizable actors like Kyle Gallner and Margo Martindale, and of course the double-header of Jeremy Irons and Emma Thompson squaring off as Dark siblings Macon and Sarafine.

Sometimes you see celebrated actors slumming it in subpar movies, but that’s not the case here. Davis brings the necessary emotional weight, providing exposition that doesn’t feel forced. Thompson seems to be having a delightful time as the main villainess, with her low-cut Civil War-era dresses and dark magic.

But it’s Irons who truly commits to his role as Lena’s forbidding uncle Macon Ravenwood. Though he’s described as a shut-in akin to Boo Radley, he has the best wardrobe of any character, dressed like a bachelor lounging around his mansion. The truth is that Macon simply has no desire to meddle in mortal affairs, for reasons that get teased out thread by thread. The trailers reduce him to barking, “You cannot love that boy!” but in the scenes between Irons and Englert, it’s clear how much Macon actually cares for his niece.

Like I said, Beautiful Creatures balances out its darkness with surprisingly funny moments. One of the best bits is Ethan warbling along to a typical incoherent country song before he meets Lena for the first time. And on both sides, there’s strong comic relief. Emmy Rossum plays Lena’s cousin Ridley partly as her inevitable future self, but also partly as a young woman having fun screwing with everyone else. (Fascinating is the way they spit out the endearment “cuz” at each other at every interaction.) Wrapped up in Ridley’s plan is Ethan’s best friend Link; Thomas Mann is only on-screen in a few scenes, but he’s got the kind of self-deprecating swagger that reinforces why I could envision him as a young Han Solo.

Beautiful Creatures movie review Emma Thompson Alice Englert Alden Ehrenreich

One sticking point is that the movie doesn’t address the issue of sex as much as the book did. There are several jokes that daringly dance around the issue, but in the series Lena is actually unable to have sex with Ethan—or can only if she chooses a certain path. Englert and Ehrenreich have fantastic chemistry, but they’re too busy figuring out a centuries-old curse to actually develop this other aspect of their relationship.

That’s not to say this movie isn’t romantic as all get out. Richard LaGravenese, who wrote and directed the film, makes Beautiful Creatures a sweeping romance for Millennials. He establishes the atmosphere of the heady, historical South just like he grounded his segment in Paris, je t’aime; he imbues it with the same yearning and sense of magic as P.S. I Love You. I hope he takes on the sequels.

Ultimately, it’s Macon who clears up the title confusion. In the book he says, “[Mortals] are such beautiful creatures.” In the movie, he expounds upon that, commenting that even when mortals are beaten down by powers outside of their control, they still have faith. Similarly, Beautiful Creatures gets by on its faith that all of these elements—director, actors, story—meld together the way that, once in a while, Light and Dark also do.

Photos: John Bramley/Alcon Entertainment, LLC

Natalie Zutter is a playwright, foodie, and the co-creator of Leftovers, a webcomic about food trucks in the zombie apocalypse. Her writing has appeared on Ology and Crushable, where she discusses celebrity culture alongside internet memes (or vice versa). Weekly you can find her commenting on pop culture on KoPoint’s podcast AFK On Air, calling in to the Hunger Games Fireside Chat podcast, reviewing new releases at Movie Mezzanine, and on Twitter.

Cassie Ammerman
1. leanoir
I loved these books, and can't wait to see the movie. Especially now that I know the adaptation doesn't suck!
2. hstring
I'm very sorry to tell you - the films 'sucks' big time. I'm a massive fan of all the books and have just left the cinema gutted at the hacket job. The film barely resembles the book.
Amanda Martino
3. isismaat
Are the books worth reading? I was intriguied by the movie trailer and did a little research on the books, but I wasn't sure if they were just another Twilight. Speaking as a Wheel of Time, Song of Ice and Fire and Harry Potter fan who won't come within 20 feet of Twilight, if that helps.
Dave Thompson
4. DKT
@isismaat: I'm listening to the first book now, and having a hard time with it. I love Potter, and love other YA (Holly Black, Garth Nix, etc.,) but this one, not so much.
Natalie Zutter
5. nataliezutter
@hstring - Maybe I'm too easygoing! Most people I've run into hated it. I'm curious which parts - without spoiling - you really disliked. Do you believe that if it had adhered closer to the book it would've been a much better film?
susan beamon
6. susanbeamon
there's more than one book? really? i just finished reading a book called "Beautiful Creatures" and it seemed pretty complete in itself. it had a pretty solid finish, based on the differences i have found in books that are part of a trilogy and books that are part of a series and books that are stand alone.
Jenny Kristine
7. jennygadget

Maybe? I enjoyed the first book, but the second book felt like a less interesting repeat of the first.

I do, however, strongly recommend Sarah Rees Brennan's Unspoken, which has a similar premise but is a much better story.
8. octobercountry
I've only read the first two books in this series, but was completely underwhelmed by the pair. So, if the film is NOT like the books, in my mind that can only be a good thing!
9. RebelDDS
Took my daughter to see this yesterday. She has read the first two books. I am about 60% through the first, which this movie is based on.
OK, it sucked. The fake Southern accents are atrocious in and of themselves, however in the first few chapters, we establish the fact that our male protagonist speaks good English due to having demanding professors for parents and the female lead doesn't have much of an accent because she's moved around so much. But both of them...along with everyone else in the movie speak with a gaggingly fake southern hick accent.
As for the I said, I haven't even finished the book, but it is apparent to me that the screenwriter apparently just cut pages out of the book, threw them in the air and stuck different scenes together haphazardly, throwing in a few made up events just for the heck of it, and leaving out some stuff that seemed fairly important to me (this was validated by my kid who has read the whole thing).
Really? Why even bother adapting the book if you are going to just trash it??
10. WouldntReaditagain
I really loved "Beautiful Creatures" the movie. I keep thinking about it, and I want to watch it again. But the books oh ma lawrrd, they're horribly written. I'm on the second one now, and I feel like pulling my hair out would be more entertaining and less painful. I only have about fifty pages left and the idea of finishing that is daunting. I wish I didn't buy the second one, so I could read something better. I hope they make more movies though. The movie strays a lot from the books, and I am so happy for that!

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