Beautiful Creatures owes its meager amount of goodwill to the Twilight saga. The studio clearly greenlit it in hopes of riding Twilight’s sparkly, sparkly coattails, and the inevitable comparison can’t help but make it look good. The story sprang from someone who actually understands outsiders, the heroes face genuine consequences instead of wish-fulfillment wankery, and the dialogue sounds appealing to the ear instead of something that drives men to elaborate murder-suicides. You can hear those braced for Bella 2.0 visibly relaxing as the movie establishes its own moony teen supernatural romance, then actively giggle as a few flashes of pure camp crop up now and then. But the relief can’t quite add up to a satisfying experience, as trite notions and wasted time squander the film’s already modest potential.
Naturally, we get a lot of ground rules, though you have to admire writer/director Richard LaGravenese for delivering them with a modicum of elegance. The backwoods South Carolina town of Gatlin plays host to a family of witches, with town patriarch Macon Ravenwood (Jeremy Irons) deftly hiding their magical powers from the local Bible thumpers. He’s thrown for a loop with the arrival of his fifteen-year-old niece Lena (Alice Englert), who blows out windows in the local high school over the heated prayers of “good Christian” queen bees. She soon falls for the iconoclastic Ethan (Alden Ehrenreich), who reads banned books and longs for a life far away from the overheated fanaticism of his neighbors. Sadly, Lena has a Really Important Destiny lurking on her next birthday, and dating a non-magical mortal could screw it all up.
The Southern Gothic arrives in supremely overheated form – complete with moss-lined oaks and arch barbs over afternoon tea – though it stays PG-13 so as not to turn away the target audience. Beautiful Creatures does best when it embraces its own ridiculousness. Irons helps a great deal in that regard, but the true scene stealers are the bad girls. Emma Thompson plays a local fanatic possessed by the evil spirit of Lena’s mother, backed by Emmy Rossum’s dark-side cousin who breezes into town in a fire-red BMW before twisting all the boys’ psyches into balloon animal shapes. Their tag team assault conjures up high point after high point, and you can feel their absence every time they exit the scene.
Sadly, the rest of the movie can’t keep up. The central couple displays little onscreen chemistry, and while we appreciate their unspoken rebellion against the forces of conformity, the film never develops their initial complexities. The same can be said of the primary themes: tension between paganism and fundamentalism, the cost of free will in the face of destiny, and the always popular price of power. These ideas make their presence known, but the story never picks up on the cues, leaving lost opportunities and a lot of dead space in their ranks. LaGravenese bolsters it with too many Southern clichés for comfort, from the small-minded intolerance to the black maid hastily redefined as a librarian to keep from slipping into the very stereotyping the movie hopes to decry. (Casting Viola Davis helps, but even she struggles with a character defined more by her outfit than her personality.)
LaGravenese lends the dialogue some deep-fried wit, helping his villainesses hold our attention with some zesty one-liners. And the supernatural elements carry just enough spookiness to enrich the romantic elements, allowing tweeners to slide into darker fare without denying the genre’s serious side. None of it actively fails, but neither does it grip us the way it must. Teenage girls may find something worthwhile here, and the basic messages of open-mindedness and being true to yourself are always welcome. But Beautiful Creatures needs more than a few old homilies and a fun pair of baddies to shine. The rest of it coasts to a stop too often for comfort, searching in vain for a reason to keep moving forward.