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"Beautiful Creatures"

Magic kingdom


With the "Twilight" series mercifully at an end — though there are already murmurings about a possible reboot — movie studios are scrambling to recapture the attentions of those film's audiences, raiding bookstore shelves and snatching up anything with the words "supernatural" and "love story" on the dust jacket. Warner Bros.' Southern Gothic romance, "Beautiful Creatures," adapted from the popular young-adult book series by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl, has the benefit of being one of the first out of the gate. And, thanks largely to two charming lead actors, they could have done a lot worse.

Sensitive, bookish jock Ethan (Alden Ehrenreich) is desperate to get away from his small South Carolina hometown and its narrow-minded, Bible-thumping inhabitants. For weeks he's been haunted by dreams of a mysterious girls whose face is never visible. Then one day pale, beautiful outsider Lena (Alice Englert) appears in his life, having just moved to town with her protective uncle, Macon (a scenery-chomping Jeremy Irons). Lena's an outcast in the town due to her family ties, but Ethan is drawn to her and they strike up a romantic relationship, bonding over their shared love of banned books and Charles Bukowski. Their love is complicated by the fact that Lena and her family turn out to be "casters" (read: witches, though Lena explains that that term is just a label, like geek or jock, created by mortals who don't understand her kind).

To make matters worse, Lena is also facing "The Claiming," a rite of passage young female casters face on their 16th birthday in which their souls are claimed for the light or the dark (good or evil). Why exactly these young women have no choice in the matter is something that may have been spelled out (no pun intended) in the novel, but the screenplay (credited to director Richard LaGravanese) can't be bothered to get into specifics. The film never explains the mechanics of these customs, and those details are crucial. Without them, the story's many prophecies and curses verge on incomprehensible. Naturally, this impending event forces Lena to push Ethan away, afraid that she'll end up destroying him if she goes all evil.

LaGravanese is clearly more at home with the teen romance side of the story than the supernatural elements, which makes sense considering his filmography, which includes "P.S. I Love You" as well as the scripts for previous high-minded literary love stories like "The Bridges of Madison County," "The Horse Whisperer," and "Water For Elephants". He's aided by the performances of Ehrenreich and Englert, who have great chemistry together and charisma to spare. Their shared scenes are without a doubt the strongest in the film. I'm curious to see what projects they choose to attach themselves to in the future.

Whenever LaGravanese has to get into the witchcraft aspects of the story, the film is markedly less successful, relying on CGI effects as a stand-in the supernatural elements of the plot. While the effects are sometimes impressive, they're no substitute for decent storytelling. The film's vine-obsessed production design (by Richard Shermann, who previously worked on both installments of "The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn"), however, is occasionally quite striking, especially the decrepit mansion owned by Lena's family, with its Southern plantation exterior and an interior that suggests Tim Burton by way of Ikea.

LaGravanese is smart enough to round out the supporting cast with several legitimately great actors; in addition to Irons, the cast includes Viola Davis and Emma Thompson. Their performances in the film are hardly going to make any career highlight reels, but they don't do anything to embarrass themselves. Thompson in particular, playing Seraphine, the most powerful dark caster in all the land (who just so happens to be Lena's mother), is clearly having a ball. She hams it up masterfully, bringing a mischievous sense of fun to the role that's sorely lacking from the rest of the film, which has a tendency to take itself way too seriously. In a film about a lovestruck teen witch, that's a deadly characteristic to have.

Still, I was never bored, which is more than can be said for most of the "Twilight" films. The ending leaves itself open for a sequel, and with three more books in the series, the fate of the potential franchise rests entirely in how hungry teenage girls are for another fix of paranormal romance.