Film Reviews

Beautiful Creatures Is a Ravishing Chastity Fantasy

Here's a question you can spit back next time someone complains that our popular culture is depraved: "Then why are our high school witches, vampires, and superheroes so passionate about their abstinence?" That Twilight hunk and Andrew Garfield's Spider-Man have won tween hearts and Hollywood billions by cavalierly refusing to sex up their franchise's beauties. There's always a plot excuse, a fear that the act of loving would lead to the beloved's destruction, but the real reason is likely Generation Awkward's preference for chaste YA over Anne Rice — and a misconception that the purest love is that which dare not doff its pants.

The latest just-say-no hero sulks through the swamps of Beautiful Creatures, a shot of pop-goth hogwash so overheated that during its run, theater owners could set aside a couple aisles and cultivate Louisiana passionflower. Here, not-quite-mortal witch Lena (Alice Englert) is urged by her family to spurn the love of non-magical local boy Ethan (Alden Ehrenreich) in order to protect him from the usual forces of darkness. The new wrinkle: She is staring down her imminent 16th birthday, which in the daft mythology worked out by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl, whose books on which all this is based, is the time of "claiming" when a female "caster" like herself discovers whether the forces of the universe have willed her to serve "light" or "dark."

Its primness aside, the movie is terrific fun and much more affecting than Twilight or Supernatural. Savor the candied gloom summoned up by director of photography Philippe Rousselot and production designer Richard Sherman. Director Richard LaGravenese, who also adapted the novel, lavishes the material with greater wit than its demographic demands, and the central love story feels warm-blooded — the air prickles between the leads.

As the dandyish patriarch of a caster brood, Jeremy Irons purrs with arch magniloquence, at one point carping about the "voluminous backsides" of small-town South Carolinians as he tickles a Chopin piece on a grand piano. In dress and affect, he could be the host of a long-gone UHF creature feature. He's matched in craziness by Emma Thompson, who at first seems wasted as a churchy busybody of the sort that went out with The Music Man but soon reveals her own bravura witchiness. The story is overstuffed with curses, dream visions, spell-driven freakouts, voodoo nonsense, Confederate ghosts, religious crazies, secret societies, an extended witch family, and testaments to the power of reading. A Southern sheriff runs his cruiser off the road, as all in movies must. And the third act turns on a library research project spanning months, which is unusual in movies with police car crashes.

Also unusual is the movie's understanding of just how much books and music matter to the young people who care about books and music. Ethan is introduced with a paperback Slaughterhouse Five; he also favors the Beats and knows most of the words to "Subterranean Homesick Blues." Lena's family's creepy home is compared to Boo Radley's, but this columned, corroded plantation would fit the cover of Absalom, Absalom!

In a movie about two smart kids bucking against a culture that doesn't value them, these references are more than just character-defining shorthand. They're recommendations presented to the target demo with some urgency, worldview-expanding suggestions that could really help soon-to-be-16s to not wind up being claimed by darkness. Their spirit informs the one scene here that achieves something like horror. Ethan, in a magic stupor stirred by the Irons character, is called upon to describe what his life will be like after high school. Ehrenrech narrates the vision with dead-eyed clarity: marry a girl he likes just enough, land a job that's not much better, have a couple of kids, then lose all the above from drinking too much and carrying on with a friend of the wife's. The movie might be bowdlerized compared to its own reading list, but for this one heartsick moment, it has the fuck-the-rules vitality of Heathers, Say Anything, or The Graduate. That's not bad for a movie engineered to teach the parent-approved lesson of the contemporary hero: that with great power comes great chastity.

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Alan Scherstuhl is film editor and writer at Voice Media Group. VMG publications include Denver Westword, Miami New Times, Phoenix New Times, Dallas Observer, Houston Press and New Times Broward-Palm Beach.
Contact: Alan Scherstuhl