“Beautiful Creatures”: A left-secular answer to “Twilight”?

Pulpy, sweet-natured and funny, "Beautiful Creatures" adds a touch of camp to the supernatural teen romance

Topics: Movies, Science Fiction and Fantasy, Twilight, beautiful creatures, Our Picks: Movies,

"Beautiful Creatures": A left-secular answer to "Twilight"?

I greatly enjoyed the camped-up teen angst of “Beautiful Creatures,” but I also suspect it might be analogous to those children’s books that are not so secretly meant for grown-ups. (My kids, for example, find the irony of the Lemony Snicket books impenetrable, and the adventures overly dark.) Adapted by writer-director Richard LaGravenese from a young-adult bestseller by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl, “Beautiful Creatures” plays like a funnier, edgier, Southern-gothic knockoff of the “Twilight” universe, with a distinct liberal-secular sensibility and without the virginal sexuality, po-faced seriousness or undertones of Christianity.

Precisely those factors – along with the fact that the movie’s real stars are Jeremy Irons and Emma Thompson, in scenery-chewing supporting roles – may well reduce its appeal to teenage girls, who presumably crave the ultra-earnest romantic intensity of the Twi-verse. I’d love to be proven wrong on that forecast, but for now I’ll just insist that “Beautiful Creatures” is surprisingly fun, and deserves much more of a look from adult viewers than it’s likely to get. LaGravenese, a Hollywood veteran with a wobbly but intriguing résumé that goes clear back to his Oscar-nominated screenplay for “The Fisher King” in 1991, has wrestled considerable humor, emotion and atmosphere from this pulpy and derivative material.

While the youthful leads in “Beautiful Creatures” may not have global Stewart-Pattinson appeal just yet, they make an appealing duo with interesting chemistry. LaGravenese understands that in this sort of romance it helps to play with gender roles just a little, under the surface. Alden Ehrenreich, who plays sensitive small-town jock Ethan Wate, has just a little feminine prettiness about him, while Alice Englert (in real life, the daughter of New Zealand Oscar-winning director Jane Campion!), who plays sarcastic teenage witch Lena Duchannes, is a bit tomboyish and spiky-looking. When the worldly-wise and faintly Goth Lena shows up in Ethan’s South Carolina hick town with her Charles Bukowski books, the jocks and sorority types instantly shun her. Ethan owns a pair of glasses, has read Kerouac or whatever and no longer believes in hell as a literal destination for all liberals and homosexuals, so he sees Lena as a challenge. (I know, the theory that anyone Lena’s age still reads Bukowski seems more outrageous than any of the supernatural stuff.)



There’s a general air of high-spirited small-town farce about “Beautiful Creatures,” which may undercut the fervid romance a little but is highly entertaining. It turns out that the idiotic, right-wing bigots in Ethan’s town have a point: Lena lives just outside town with her dad, Macon Ravenwood (Irons), in a house that looks like a crumbling plantation manse on the outside, and on the inside like an insta-vulgar South Beach estate designed for the gay wedding of Jay-Z and A-Rod. With his stretched-out, faux-Southern vowels coated in sorghum syrup and his skin like designer crocodile leather, Irons seems to be channeling Katharine Hepburn playing Truman Capote, or perhaps all of Tennessee Williams’ characters at the same time.

Lena and Macon, as things turn out, belong to the ancient race of “casters,” known to the unenlightened as witches, who are supposed to limit their entanglements with ordinary mortals, romantic or otherwise. This partly has to do with the upcoming drama around Lena’s 16th birthday, when she will either be claimed by the force of light or the force of darkness, which as usual seems a lot sexier. Her trampy but hot older sister Ridley (Emmy Rossum), for instance, who comes to town clad in a gawk-inducing dress and a gawk-inducing convertible and instantly locks lips with Ethan’s best friend, Link (Thomas Mann). She’s all evil and stuff. Then there’s the question of Lena’s long-missing and supremely evil mom, Sarafine, who may or may not have something to do with the town’s Bible-thumping but suspiciously well-dressed busybody, Mrs. Lincoln (Emma Thompson, stealing every one of her scenes).

There’s been some publicity around the fact that Viola Davis would only do this movie if her character were changed from a domestic servant into something else. So she plays Amma, the town librarian, who also has access to troves of secret caster-oriented lore, but still feels as if she were written in to add a smidgen of diversity to what is otherwise a distressingly all-white Southern world where the annual Civil War reenactment has no sense of morality or history. (Yes, it resembles parts of the real-world South in that respect, but let’s not get distracted.)

I actually found the unstable electric connection between Lena and Ethan alluring, though as stated I’m not promising that the movie’s target audience will feel the same way. “Beautiful Creatures” has no explicit sex or nudity, but it’s pretty clear these two aren’t saving themselves till marriage, “Twilight”-style, although Lena’s hormonal tides seem to bring torrential rainstorms, lightning, snow and other hazardous phenomena with them. Furthermore, the bittersweet conclusion to their story is mildly surprising and oddly affecting, although of course it leaves the door open for multiple sequels. All in all, this movie is likelier to be a pop-culture footnote than the cornerstone to a new empire, but if you’re brave enough to check it out – whether this weekend or in a few months on pay-per-view – you may well echo Emma Thompson in exclaiming, “Well, slap my ass and call me Sally!”

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>