Those expecting “Beautiful Creatures” to be a Southern fried “Harry Potter” knock-off will be pleasantly surprised to find out they’re wrong. Writer/director Richard LaGravenese’s adaptation of the novel by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl is more of a supernatural “Romeo and Juliet,” and that’s not as bad as you might be worrying. Better news yet, it isn’t reminiscent of “Twilight.” Part fantasy, part coming-of-age drama and sometimes campy social commentary, “Beautiful Creatures” is sometimes uneven, but in the end very entertaining in its own right.
Alden Ehrenreich (“Tetro”) plays Ethan, a young man in a small southern town he can’t wait to leave. He tells us his father won’t come out of his room since his mother died, which we can well believe, since he never appears on camera. Viola Davis (“The Help”), as the town librarian, is his current mother figure. Ethan’s sleep has recently been disturbed by a recurring dream, which seems to be set during the Civil War, in which he’s shot and killed as he tries to reach a girl whose face he never sees.
Well of course he’s going to meet her. A new girl arrives with the start of the school year, Lena Duchannes (Alice Englert), a member of a wealthy but reclusive family that people tend to whisper about. It doesn’t help when all the classroom windows shatter when she gets upset.
Ethan, who’s recently broken up with his Evangelical-oriented girlfriend (Zooey Deutch), is drawn to the enigmatic newcomer, who it turns out, has been dreaming of him as well. Unable to conceal their mutual attraction, Lena tells Ethan the truth; she’s a “caster,” which most of us muggles, sorry, mortals, would call witches. In this world, casters find out their destiny, whether they serve darkness or light, when they turn 16, and Lena’s fateful birthday is coming up soon.
Adding fuel to the fire is an old curse, which has been hinted at in Ethan’s dreams, Lena’s dysfunctional extended family and the generally conservative bent of most of the townspeople, who don’t seem too far removed from the torches and pitchfork mentality.
These two kids are both orphaned for all intents and purposes, although they have more than that in common. Ethan and Lena love to read “banned books,” and literary allusions abound in this movie almost to a fault, as the young protagonists discuss Vonnegut, Bukowski and Harper Lee (which at least they’ve been assigned in school). This also makes useful fodder for casting the town Bible-thumpers in a bad light, which “Beautiful Creatures” does with regularity. And unlike in the “Harry Potter” books and movies, these witches don’t celebrate Christmas.
Ehrenreich, who happily doesn’t come from the central casting department where all young actors look like surfers, is earnest and energetic. Alice Englert is pleasantly reminiscent of Ellen Page. Jeremy Irons, sporting a not entirely convincing southern accent, plays Lena’s uncle, Macon Ravenwood, with an appropriate gravitas. Emma Thompson, as the town’s leading judgmental conservative, is clearly having a ball, as is Emmy Rossum as Lena’s sexy older cousin, who seduces Ethan’s best friend in a deliberate homage to “Gilda,” complete with slinky black gown and opera gloves.
LaGravenese’s screenplay is literate and witty, and his direction is assured and individualistic, adroitly sidestepping the myriad temptations to look like a “Harry Potter” movie that must have littered his pre-production meetings like minefield. In fact, veteran director of photography Philipe Rousselot’s honey-glazed cinematography looks more like a darker version of “The Help” than anything else. The music by Thenewno2 is excellent.
If the movie bogs down a little in its second act, it generally moves crisply towards a finale that doesn’t lose sight of the fact that the love story between the two semi-orphans is actually the point. There a few scary moments well within the limits of its PG-13 rating, and some not very graphic adolescent sensuality.
Warner Bros. has been feeling the void left by “Harry Potter” acutely. Whether this can be the start of a new franchise for the studio (there are more books in the series) is an open question, but one we should hope will be answered yes.