“I cannot fix on the hour, or the spot, or the look or the words, which laid the foundation. It is too long ago. I was in the middle before I knew that I had begun.”
― Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
Set amidst the religious and pokey backwoods of modern day Gatlin, South Carolina, youth Ethan Wate (Alden Ehrenreich) is preparing for his senior year of high school, dealing with the death of his mother and dreaming of a beautiful, mysterious young woman. His dad’s basically MIA and his main caretaker is a friend of his mothers, Amma (Viola Davis), who may be more than she seems. When Lena Duchannes (Alice Englert), the niece of the town’s resident recluse (Jeremy Irons) moves to town, Ethan falls in love with her, recognizing her as the woman of his dreams, and begins to uncover her true nature. See, Lena is a witch of sorts, they call themselves casters, and her entire family is eagerly awaiting her 16th birthday, at which time her true nature will be revealed and she will be claimed for the light or for the dark. Just, you know, what happens in every teenage girl’s life, only most of us get claimed way earlier. Both sides of the family have a stake in Lena’s power being shifted, including her cousin Ridley (Emmy Rossum) and another powerful caster, Emma Thompson.
Compared to the cold, impersonal and mundanely boring Twilight series, Beautiful Creatures has a great deal of warmth, heart and love for its characters. There’s elements of the darkly gothic and deeply religious South littered throughout, from a vaguely “The Lottery”-esque Shirley Jackson moment in a church to hints and glimpses of Flannery O’Connor around the edges. Yes, it’s cheeseballs silly and eye-rolly at times, okay, at a lot of times. There’s bizarre outfits, over the top antics from nearly every member of the cast, outlandish and ostentatious sets and requires huge amounts of good faith and turning a blind eye to plot holes on the part of the audience. Aside from that, it’s wildly good fun.
There’s something remarkable about the two leads, who seem plain as day but beautiful in that natural way that young people are. It shows an almost stupid amount of restraint on the part of the filmmakers to cast such believably normal-looking young folks. Alden Ehrenreich is one of the most naturally charming people I’ve seen on screen in ages, his enthusiasm and adoration of Lena believable, as are his burgeoning intellectual leanings amidst the aw-shucksing of the South. His obsession with reading comes off not like a belligerent affectation, but a natural expansion of curiosity about the world in general, and a way to connect with others around him. Alice Englert is multi-faceted and layered as the worried, anxious young caster, determined not to fall prey to her darker side, and determined to keep Ethan from harm, no matter the cost. Her concern over living well and the weight of her responsibilities catapults her into adulthood faster than she might have wished for, but her love for Ethan is rooted in forces beyond her understanding and made of sterner stuff than can be broken by petty misunderstandings.
Jeremy Irons isn’t given nearly enough to do in the film, though his throaty declarations and languorous dolor is sure to continue the burning love that all Irons aficionados harbor for him since time immemorial. Emma Thompson is excellent — creepy and haunting — though again, given far too little to do, and Emmy Rossum shows us a side of her that I felt for sure was Bryce Dallas Howard, but no, it is Emmy Rossum, flauntin’ it good and making evil seem both sexy and annoying as she jets around town in her red convertible, being annoying and hot and hot and hot and hot.
There’s a few sort of wonderful things (no one’s pulling out cell phones or Googling things, even though it’s set in present day) and then there’s the lazy errors, such as the family’s seeming instant acceptance of Ethan at a dinner party when only minutes before it was of the utmost importance that he never know about their true nature. Also similarly disturbing is Ethan’s easy obsession with Lena, whom he falls in love with before really seeming to know her at all. At one point early on, he states boldly that he knows Lena, and knows what she’s like, it’s almost impossible to believe, knowing as we do that the two have barely spoken so far. Equally uncomfortable is the relationship dynamic that the pair set up, with Lena telling Ethan to leave her alone and Ethan doggedly pursuing her, good-naturedly refusing to take “No,” for an answer.
Yes, this is the stuff of teen fantasy YA novels, the misunderstood, loner outcast girl and the attractive, charming boy hell-bent on loving her, so smitten he won’t ever give up the hunt. Disappointing, though the film doesn’t linger too long on this shoddy situation, just long enough to make you uncomfortably aware of what’s going on. The idea that men really know best, that when women say no, when women say they wish to be left alone, that they are to be ignored in favor of a kind of misguided chivalry, an idea that men see through the “false persona” and love some sort of pure inner self, this idea has been bandied about for ages and is nothing new. Still, Ethan’s pursuit comes across more like a charming Dawson Leery-like insistence on romance rather than the brooding, relentless and frightening hunger of Edward Cullen, and the distinction is important, but no less troubling in the broad strokes.
What the film is really attempting to set up is a pattern of refusing to fail, Ethan’s insistence on loving Lena meant to be a kind of roadblock that will keep the two together despite the coming storm. Beautiful Creatures is obsessed with unconditional love, the idea that love has the power to deeply change you, that it makes you more fully the person you’re meant to become, that one person’s belief in your worthiness can help mold you into a worthier person, and that real love can sometimes require sacrifice far beyond your imaginings. Though we are shown the pair in this kind of destined-to-be, fated love, we’re still not always privy to what keeps them together. And there’s some questionable methods utilized that involve kinda maybe depriving someone of their free will, but that is secondary in importance to the Taylor Swiftyness fairy tale romance of the matter.
I have no idea how similarly the movie follows the book, though I will say that the film feels quite long and incorporates historical bits that are, again, eye-rolly and yawn inducing. If the film fails further, it’s in trying to capture the ideas present in the book in a two hour movie. We ultimately know very little about the world of casters, it would have been nice to hear a bit more history, understand more fully the implications of Lena’s choices between turning dark or light. Beautiful Creatures acknowledges a supernatural world that is layered very thinly upon ours, the two inextricably intertwined, and also ruminates lightly on religion, faith and spirituality, with one character professing faith in God, and others questioning the nature of belief. But it all goes by in the blink of an eye and we’re left with pyrotechnics and cheap tricks instead of substance, in much the same way a hungry man observes a waiter sailing past with a full tray of food and never gets his fill.
It’s hard to imagine most adults caring for this ultimately forgettable film, but lurking just under the shiny new surface is a host of age old ideas worthy of consideration, and is a film I wouldn’t be embarrassed to show the impressionable tweens in my life, unlike other similar films that showcase far worse examples of male/female interactions, misrepresentation of self or familial traumas. Beautiful Creatures believes that to be in the light is better than to be in the dark, that real love takes a long hard look at reality and chooses its battles wisely, and that sacrifice is the ultimate expression of love — the right message for Valentine’s Day certainly, but more importantly, the right message to keep close to our own heart.