Forbidden love between a mortal and some sort of supernatural creature seems to be the fantasy sub-genre du jour these days. We have the Twilight franchise to thank for that, a series that is now mercifully over. Filling the void is a glut of movies, most based on wildly successful YA novels, invading theaters. We already have Warm Bodies (human and zombie) and before Beautiful Creatures there were trailers for The Host (human and alien) and The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones (human and angel, I think), with more to come. Beautiful Creatures may be predictable, but it benefits from potent Southern Gothic atmosphere, two likeable leads, and a delightful supporting cast.
Ethan Wate (Alden Ehrenreich) dreams of graduation so he can escape his small South Carolina home, a town so backward and restrictive that the locals ban books like To Kill a Mockingbird. Anyone different is viewed with suspicion, particularly eccentric millionaire Macon Ravenwood (Jeremy Irons). When Ravenwood's niece Lena Duchannes (Alice Englert) transfers to the school, she is immediately accused of witchcraft and devil worship. Ethan immediately takes to her, and the two begin a timid romance that is complicated by the fact that she is in fact a witch. Lena comes from a long line of casters, as they call themselves, and on her 16th birthday she will be claimed by the forces of light or dark, depending on her true nature. Ravenwood wants her for the light, and so tries to protect her from Sarafine (Emma Thompson), a particularly nasty dark caster who wants to use Lena to enslave the human race.
There are further developments involving a curse and reincarnation, but a story like this is only as good as its protagonists, and luckily Ethan and Lena both come off as likeable and relatable teenagers. You find yourself drawn into their courtship and actually care what happens, because their attraction is based on mutual interests and interesting personalities. One of my bigger problems with Twilight has always been that Bella comes off as whiny, vapid and shallow, and Edward is petulant, sullen, and a bit of a creeper. Whereas in Beautiful Creatures, Ethan and Lena's initial attraction is based on, among other things, a love of reading. Oh, my stars!
Ehrenreich has a certain sleepy-eyed charm and Englert finds a balance between innocent and sinister, and both young actors enlist our sympathies pretty early. The real fun is had from the supporting players, particularly Jeremy Irons and Emma Thompson. Their first encounter in a church plays like a contest to see who can out-emote the other. Thompson, with her outsized southern drawl, chews the scenery with such relish that you wonder if she'll leave anything for Irons. Viola Davis is mostly wasted as Amma, the local librarian who knows a lot more than she lets on at first. She brings dignity and strength to a pretty thankless role. Also entertaining is Emmy Rossum as Lena's cousin Ridley, a dark caster brought in my Sarafine to tempt Lena to the dark side.
The story started to drag by the end and the climax relied a little to heavily on special effects, but there were enough plot twists to make the story fresher than the average tale of its ilk. Writer/director Richard LaGravenese's biggest accomplishment might be harnessing the talents of both the young leads and the veteran performers backing them up. They make Beautiful Creatures stand out better than any plot point or computer generated tornado could.