Note: This appeared in the print-only TV Guide of The Marshall Independent.
The first thing you notice in “Beautiful Creatures” is, they’ve got the dialect down. I defy anyone to name the actor who is really from South Carolina, among an Englishman, a Scot, a kiwi, two Californians, a Texan and a New York Yankee.
They got a heck of a dialect coach to teach them how to tawk raht. They even know “Bless your heart” is how well-bred Southern ladies say, “**** you.”
“Beautiful Creatures” is based on the 2009 novel by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl, which falls into the sub-subgenre of fantasy called teen urban fantasy, though it’s set in the fictional rural town of Gatlin, South Carolina. That is, it’s a story where the supernatural lurks below the surface of our seemingly mundane world.
And the world of Gatlin is suffocatingly mundane to teenage Ethan Wate (Alden Ehrenreich, the Californian), a high school junior whose burning ambition is to graduate and get out of town.
You see Ethan, though a popular jock, likes to read books. Forbidden books, such as “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
Ethan has been having dreams about a girl he’s never met. Until she shows up in class at the beginning of the year.
Lena Duchannes (Alice Englert, the New Zealander) is 15 and pretty in a spooky kind of way. But though the mean-girls clique led by Ethan’s old girlfriend Emily (Zoey Deutch, California) are really nasty, Lena can hold her own dishing out the insults. And when that fails she can shatter the school windows.
She is also the niece of Macon Ravenwood (Jeremy Irons, the Brit), a reclusive rich man whose family built the town and are rumored to be devil worshippers.
Not quite. They’re casters, something like witches though they don’t like that term. Casters are a race with supernatural powers who seem to be at least provisionally immortal, since they refer to us as mortals.
When Lena turns 16, she will be claimed by either the light or the dark, according to her true nature. And it’s not altogether certain a caster has a choice in these things. Her older cousin Ridley (Emily Rossum, New Yorker) seemed like a nice enough girl, until she turned 16 and became a Siren who uses and discards men mercilessly. And by discard we mean on railroad tracks in front of onrushing trains.
Ethan and Lena bond over a love of books and poetry, and shared loss of their mothers, after a courtship involving some very well-written banter.
Well the course of true love never runs smooth, especially with mixed couples. Lena’s mother Serafina (Emma Thompson, the Scot), who really is a witch, or something that rimes with it, won’t stay dead. She’s possessing the body of Ethan’s best friend Link’s (Thomas Mann, Texas) mother Mrs. Franklin.
Serafina wants Lena for the dark, so casters can come out of the shadows and take their rightful place as rulers of the mortal world.
Macon has his own plans for Lena, which definitely don’t include Ethan. Fortunately Ethan has an ally in Amma (Viola Davis, the real Carolinian), a family friend/housekeeper for his own reclusive and grief-stricken father.
Amma is not a caster, but she is a seer and the Keeper of the caster library. Amma also has history with the Ravenwoods. She’s a black woman steeped in the tradition of southern Hoodoo, and quite capable of putting Macon in his place.
So how does this stack up as modern fantasy?
Pretty good. It’s pretty solidly rooted in the traditions of European folklore about the Other World, its inhabitants and their relationship to ours. And as noted there’s a dash of the African-American folkloric tradition indigenous to the South.
Visual effects are for the most part, very good. The chemistry between the young couple is convincing, and there are plot complications aplenty.
What’s really nice is, teen genre books and movies for the past generation have mostly tended to be about teen angst and the agony of being unpopular. The teen books of my youth and my father’s generation were about teens doing improbable, but bold, resourceful, self-reliant things.
For anyone raised on the adventures of Tom Swift and the Hardy Boys, or for girls Nancy Drew and Cherry Ames, this modern stuff is pretty thin gruel.
Lena is the school outcast, but nobody’s doormat, and trying hard not to go all “Carrie” on everybody.
Ethan is a popular jock, but he has a brain, character and compassion. Thank you!
Newbies Ehrenreich and Englert hold their own as leads supported by heavyweights Irons, Thompson, and Rossum. Davis is known more as a stage actress, but “Beautiful Creatures” might change that – there are two sequels to the book, “Beautiful Darkness,” and “Beautiful Chaos.”
Keep your crystal ball tuned for further developments.