Far from the standard drab YA fare, Beautiful Creatures represents all that can be good about the fantasy-romance genre and all that used to be exciting about work geared toward younger audiences. This 2013 film is based on the novel of the same name by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl and opens up a world of curiosity, ideas and self-discovery.
Beautiful Creatures comes directed by Richard LaGravenese, whose talents largely lie with screenwriting. He proves himself capable of handling the elements, however, and he does well to draw on some of the story’s darker elements. LaGravenese also benefits from his script and feels close to the material, giving the actors plenty of space to operate and crafting an edgier narrative than the genre usually manages.
The tale takes place in Gatlin, South Carolina, and introduces Ethan Wate (Alden Ehrenreich) as a young man sifting through a series of banned books and longing for a way out of his stifling hometown. His mother is dead and he lives with his absentee father. When newcomer Lena Duchannes (Alice Englert) arrives in town and turns heads with her reputation, Ethan takes note.
Ethan and Lena bond over their love of poetry and having lost their mothers. When Ethan visits Lena at her home and meets the enigmatic Macon Ravenwood (Jeremy Irons), he discovers there may be more to this mystery girl with a bad reputation than he first thought. Drawn even closer to her, Ethan finds himself in a web of magic, casters, seers, and one hell of a family dynamic.
Beautiful Creatures excels primarily because of the way it handles its setting. Ethan’s voiceover describes a place with “12 churches and one library.” It is a hellfire and brimstone sanctuary, a parcel where the most popular girl in school wears alluring summer dresses but speaks of Satan and damnation. Ethan doesn’t fit in, but he’s no belligerent hermit.
Gatlin is also the sort of place where people re-enact the Civil War in hopes that “it’ll turn out differently,” representing a tendency to live in the past. This is further exemplified with activity in the local church, where parishioners gather to grumble about Satan making inroads and the Ravenwoods’ rumoured witchcraft.
The setting makes Ethan a most interesting character. His deceased mother used to take him to the library a lot, informing him that this was his “church” and that ideas were his religion. This runs counter to the blind faith of the townsfolk and makes Ethan more acute than most, which contrasts nicely with the supernatural relationship he somersaults into as the film progresses.
And Lena is no damsel in distress. This flips the genre’s tendency to require a rescue project, as Lena and her family have their own traditions and situations to work through. She has a choice to make that forms the thrust of the movie. Her mother (Emma Thompson) and sassy sister (Emmy Rossum) make things interesting.
Beautiful Creatures tells a love story of sacrifice, not obsession or foul protectionism. It doesn’t require a love triangle and it doesn’t make a brittle object out of its heroine. She is a young woman at a critical point in her life; she must “claim herself” and discover her path rather than set up a dependency on a potentially abusive presence.
And so in that way, Beautiful Creatures already has more than a leg up on its contemporaries. It is also a sexy, fiery, thoughtful, and critical movie. It doesn’t mollycoddle. It presents Vonnegut and Bukowski without shame and gives us Rossum’s Ridley in alternating shades of noir and sex kitten rouge.
It’s not a perfect film, but it steers close to satirical in its view of religion. Some of the characters seem rather thin and obvious at first blush, while the magic of the family could’ve used more detail. Still, the performers are interesting and the plot progresses sagely. Unlike its genre cousins, Beautiful Creatures respects its audience. Imagine that.