Beautiful Creatures Movie Review
Having dreamt of a mystery girl with raven locks and alluring eyes, Ethan Wate awakes amidst his collection of banned books and gets ready for the first day of his junior year of high school. He settles in his seat, only to discover that there is a new girl in town and she happens to be the mystery girl of his dreams. His classmates treat this girl, named Lena Duchannes, with hostility and snide whispers about her odd family. As the gossiping reaches a crescendo, suddenly each and every window spontaneously shatters.
So begins Beautiful Creatures, an enchanting supernatural romance. Chances are you’ve never heard of Beautiful Creatures. I certainly hadn’t. The film opened last February without significant advertising or promotion from Warner Bros. I don’t recall any TV ads or even one-sheets on the subway walls. Warner Bros. obviously figured that Beautiful Creatures would sell itself since it was based upon a popular series of young adult novels by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl. Forgetting about that segment who never read the book has become an alarming trend in Hollywood these days.
Opening at midnight on Valentine’s Day, Beautiful Creatures was largely ignored by criticsand audiences. Even fans of the book stayed away. In July, Beautiful Creatures was very quietly released on home video. While perusing the vast DVD shelves of the Queens Public Library one hot August day, I came across Beautiful Creatures. The cast piqued my interest: it includes Oscar-winners Jeremy Irons and Emma Thompson, Oscar nominee Viola Davis and the always good Emmy Rossum. The premise also sounded intriguing. I grabbed the disc and proceeded to checkout.
Hoping for a decent enough flick, I popped the disc into the player and settled back. By the half-hour mark, I was pleasantly surprised. By the one hour mark, I was hooked. When it ended, I was wondering aloud just how this masterpiece was so completely overlooked. Beautiful Creatures is one of a very lousy film year’s few great films. Ignore the wags that dismiss this as nothing more than Twilight rehashed. Beautiful Creatures has everything Twilight lacks: good storytelling, solid filmmaking, great acting, emotional depth and sizzling chemistry amongst the leads.
Not having read the book, I had no idea what to expect. The film starts out as what I like to call the Teen-in-a-Small-Town tale. It proceeds pleasantly enough until that moment when the windows shatter. Having startled us with such a startling development, writer/director Richard LaGravenese begins to reel us in. We discover that Lena Duchannes (Alice Englert) is a descendant of an awfully strange family who are considered black sheep at best. Seems ordinary, doesn’t it? Then we get the twist: Lena’s family is a group of mysterious beings called casters. These casters have a unique quirk: the ability to affect weather, time and space, and create odd illusions, among other things.
LaGravenese’s script continues to add more layers to this most intriguing tale. There is a maturation process each Caster goes through on the 16th birthday: they embrace Dark (evil) or light (good). Lena is 15 and 3/4. Her family is split between both factions and each side has their reasons for Lena to gravitate towards darkness or light. After brief acrimony at the beginning, Ethan and Lena find themselves falling deeply in love, much to the chagrin of all involved.
The rest of the movie I’ll leave you to discover as part of the fun is discovering the neat surprises in store. I’ll admit a certain prejudice against these adaptations of popular youth novel franchises. For every Harry Potter that is a roaring success, there are dozens of turkeys that leave me wondering what the fuss was about. Twilight was one; Mortal Instruments is another. Perhaps it helped not knowing anything about The Caster Chronicles, the series of books from which Beautiful Creatures emerged. I was able to approach this movie completely devoid of expectations and any residual fan buzz that tends to follow these franchises.
The smartest decision Warner Bros. made was to hire Richard LaGravenese to write and direct. Not only is he one of the best screenwriters around, his three directorial efforts to date (Living Out Loud, Freedom Writers, PS I Love You) were all excellent films. Beautiful Creatures is his best film to date. He wrote a script that remained faithful to the flavor of the novel without alienating those unfamiliar with it. He eschews an orgy of CGI in favor of more modest visual effects and old-fashioned filmmaking. He gets strong performances from cast members famous and unknown while maintaining a brisk pace and viewer interest.
LaGravenese’s script never steers wrong. He employs flashbacks, but unlike Man of Steel, where they often felt out-of-place, LaGravenese provides plenty of set-up and payoff. His script has a firm beginning, middle and end, which is a lot less common than you might think lately. He retains enough of the novel to make a satisfying adaptation and his few changes are inspired. Most importantly, LaGravenese emphasizes the emotional depth of these characters. Granted, that depth was in the original novel, but a lesser filmmaker would have paid mere lip service to such feeling while ratcheting up the sex. We really feel for these young lovers and their mysterious plight into the supernatural. This movie is about actual romance, not candlelit sex.
Allegedly Warner Bros. wanted big stars to play the star-crossed lovers, but LaGravenese managed to convince the studio to take a chance on two unknowns: Alden Ehrenreich and Alice Englert. LaGravenese hit the jackpot: not only could both act really well, but they have sizzling chemistry together. I’ve seen dozens of screen romances that fall flat due to a lack of screen chemistry. Ehrenreich and Englert practically melt the screen during the most passionate scenes in the film.Best of all, they are young enough to authentically play teenagers: Ehrenreich was 22 and Englert 17 during production last year.
LaGravenese surrounds them with a great cast of reliable actors: Jeremy Irons as Lena’s uncle, Emma Thompson as a nosy neighbor with a secret, Viola Davis as the town librarian, Eileen Atkins as Lena’s grandmother, Margo Martindale as Lena’s eccentric aunt and Emmy Rossum as Lena’s estranged sister. This is a gallery of rich performances given by actors who seldom do any wrong in the movies. If you want to see what great ensemble acting is all about, Beautiful Creatures is a strong example.
Beautiful Creatures is going to finish high on my list of the year’s best films. This is a five star movie that got a one-star treatment from the studio. They deserve a big fat lump of coal in their stocking. Do yourself a favor and rent Beautiful Creatures. Free yourself from the expectations such youth novels tend to engender. Soak in the acting and the storytelling. You will not go wrong. I don’t often throw out the word masterpiece, but Beautiful Creatures is that increasingly rare creature.