With Alice Englert, Alden Ehrenreich, Jeremy Irons, Viola Davis, Emma Thompson. Written and directed by Richard LaGravenese. Rated PG-13 for violence, scary images and some sexual material. 124 minutes.
There’s no question that we are in a golden age of YA (Young Adult) fiction. Whether it’s something interesting like the Harry Potter series, or The Hunger Games books, or the Percy Jackson stories, or it’s something utterly cheesy like the Twilight saga, books geared to teen audiences are not only getting read by adolescents, but by adults as well. Hollywood has noticed and has turned one YA phenomenon after another into movies, hoping to create the excitement that the Potter and Twilight films did.
It’s too soon to say whether BEAUTIFUL CREATURES will be a hit on screen, but there’s no question that writer/director Richard LaGravenese has taken the material seriously, and crafted a serious – if somewhat overlong – adaptation. Ethan Wate (Alden Ehrenreich) is a 16-year-old in a Southern backwater who can’t wait to graduate high school so he can get out of town. His world is shaken up by the arrival of Lena Duchannes (Alice Englert), a transfer student whose family is rumored to be witches.
It turns out they are, although they prefer to be called “casters” (for their ability to cast spells), and some of them are good and some of them are evil. Lena is nervous because when she turns 16 she will be claimed by one side or the other and it’s open to debate whether she has a say in the matter. One thing is certain – her uncle (Jeremy Irons) firmly believes that her involvement with the “mortal” Ethan will ensure she falls to the dark side.
As with so much YA storytelling, the supernatural stuff is a metaphor for the intense emotions of adolescence. What makes this refreshing is that unlike Twilight, the female protagonist is not a passive character hoping to be rescued, but a dynamic figure who takes an active hand in her own fate. To be sure, it’s not entirely in her hands, but she doesn’t sit around pining and yearning either.
Although the story might have been crafted a bit tighter (the film clocks in at just over two hours), it is colorful and engaging as its teenage protagonists try to set things right. Ehrenreich and Englert initially bond over a shared interest in books that the local school board has banned (including Slaughterhouse Five, To Kill a Mockingbird and the works of Charles Bukowski). As the moment of truth gets nearer, they have to see if they can define themselves or are stuck with how they are defined by the grown-ups around them, perhaps the key passage of adolescence.
The young leads are fine, with LaGravenese ensuring a quality production with a dream supporting cast including Jeremy Irons, Emma Thompson, and Viola Davis. The actors do not condescend to the material but take it seriously, so that when Davis – as the seer Amma – is ordered about by Macon (Irons), she makes it clear that if he wants answers from the spirits that only she can access he had better address her with respect.
“Beautiful Creatures” is clearly hoping to launch a new franchise (it’s an adaptation of the first of a series currently at four books), and if it succeeds it would not be a bad thing. Sure, it’s another movie like “Warm Bodies” or “Twilight” looking for a supernatural metaphor for adolescent anxieties, but it does so in a witty and engaging way while reminding us just how raw teenage emotions can be when we are experiencing our first loves and disappointments.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His first novel, Shh! It’s A Secret: A Novel About Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide has just been released. He teaches at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.