Review: “Beautiful Creatures”

With Valentine’s Day occurring this week, it needs to be stated once more; romantic melodramas can be great. That obvious fact is often overlooked due to a cycle of repetitive, uninspired and lazy members of the genre that litter theaters on a monthly, sometimes weekly basis. This notion sticks to the supernatural romances too.

Twilight’s legacy at this point appears to be making swaths of moviegoers either cheer or roll-their-eyes at each new tale of woebegone lovers unable to be together because one’s a vampire/witch/zombie/bee-in-a-man-sized-suit. This isn’t a new genre, and just like romances, comedies and all others, when done right, it can be just as engrossing as any other subject.

Take for example “Beautiful Creatures,” the adaptation of the popular Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl novel in which teenager Lena (Alice Englert) struggles with her life in a middle-of-nowhere town in the deep South.

Lena gets cold shoulders and whispered words thrown her way every day in high school, with the rumor being that she comes from a family of witches; an accurate bit of tabloid fodder. Yet, one bored boy in this lazy town named Ethan (Alden Ehrenreich) has a liking for Lena, her blunt attitude and interest in books of the non-biblical variety.

As goes in such stories, there is trouble on the horizon for these two kids. On Lena’s sixteenth birthday, she will be claimed by the forces of light or dark based upon her innate nature, and if she’s a baddie, it’s unlikely dinners over candlelight are in the future, unless Ethan’s being cooked by one.

Ethan meets Lena’s variety of siblings, from the trying to overcome his nastiness uncle (Jeremy Irons) to her former goody-two-shoes cousin turned manipulating, murdering cousin (Emmy Rossum). Despite the danger, Ethan yearns to help Lena through it all, danger be damned, as is the way in such stories.

What “Beautiful Creatures” lacks in originality it outweighs in wit, fun and a terrific cast, led by its two stars. Both Englert and Ehrenreich have been in a handful of indies over the years and they bring with them a knack for the sizzling, frayed edges of teenage life. Their scenes crackle as they make gaga eyes at one another and discover every fresh detail that comes with a new love at that age.

Richard LaGravenese, who directed and wrote the screenplay, doesn’t attempt to base this bonding in a few errant stares and a montage set to a pop-diddy, instead letting his actors and dialogue do the trick. Englert isn’t solely an introvert or mopish figure, imbuing a confidence into her actions, as Ehrenreich makes Ethan unrelenting in his energy, ready to climb fences or crack a smile at the thought of running away from his dusty, god-obsessed town. These two actors are full of surprises though out the picture and are worth keeping tabs on.

LaGravenese doesn’t have a strong as handle on Beautiful Creatures’ more high-scale gestures, with a number of magic-moments limited by mediocre staging and a meager – by Hollywood standards – budget. Whenever the movie threatens to go off the rails though, someone in the cast zips back into line, including a terrific Emma Thompson (is there any other kind) as a devil-fearing local with a few secrets of her own.

Irons, so often a complete ham in these types of pictures, is engaged, bringing a true sense of worry for his niece’s situation. Plus, Rossum is a delight as the heinous, gleefully tricksy witch that plots to have an equally nasty running buddy in Lena.