After a lifetime spent in the humdrum, nowheresville town of Gatlin in South Carolina, teenager Ethan Wate (Alden Ehrenreich) can't wait to graduate high school and venture into the wider world. But he is haunted by vivid dreams about a beautiful, mysterious girl. That girl turns out to be Lena Duchannes (Alice Englert), the new kid in school shunned by superstitious townsfolk who believe her grandfather Macon Ravenwood (Jeremy Irons) and his family are devil worshippers. A smitten Ethan pursues Lena only to discover she really is a witch awaiting the fateful moon rising on her sixteenth birthday that will decide whether she will lead the forces of light or darkness.
Adapted from the popular novel by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl and not to be confused with the Rachel Weisz-starring crime thriller of the same name, Beautiful Creatures was a conspicuous attempt to engineer another Twilight (2008)-style phenomenon among teenage girls. Nevertheless, the film sports an excellent pedigree coming from the award-winning screenwriter behind The Fisher King (1991), A Little Princess (1995) and Behind the Candelabra (2013), a superb cast, an evocative setting in South Carolina and a compelling plot that draws upon the rich storytelling traditions of the American South, from folk tales to the literature of Margaret Mitchell and Harper Lee, hitting on established themes like dark family secrets, the troubled legacy of the civil war and small-town prejudice. At first the film's portrayal of Christians as book-banning ignorant bigots seems a little heavy-handed but as events play out it draws a distinction between false piety and real faith, ruminating on the value of sacrifice, tolerance and understanding. Also any teen fantasy that references Kurt Vonnegut and Charles Bukowski has got to be worth a look.
Reversing the traditional gender roles established in Twilight of supernatural hero and smitten mortal, this starts out like a regular romantic drama then gradually draws us into its fantastical world, eventually emerging a cross between I Married a Witch and Wuthering Heights. Our heroine Lena finds herself torn between embracing her potential as an all-powerful witch and the looming possibility of harming her beloved Ethan. While the film does not succeed entirely at condensing the labyrinthine plot into a smooth cinematic narrative, the central love story remains compelling thanks to the high likeability of the lead characters inhabited by winning newcomers Alden Ehrenreich and Alice Englert. For all its gothic supernatural trappings the film is really a sweet, old fashioned star-crossed romance and a charming one at that. An allegory for adolescence and the dilemmas facing girls on the cusp of womanhood. In a subtle touch, Lena starts out somewhat plain and grows increasingly alluring as she gains in confidence and strength.
Unlike an unfortunate many teen fantasies of late, Beautiful Creatures exhibits a fine sense of humour from memorable sight gags (e.g. when an angry Lena has a solitary rain cloud follow Ethan around) to quotable one-liners. Ehrenreich and Englert spout witty, intelligent dialogue that goes some way towards humanising their characters and engrossing the audience in their personal problems. Among the supporting cast, Emma Thompson is predictably outstanding in a crucial role and outshines a rather sullen Jeremy Irons who grapples with a wavering Southern accent. Meanwhile, lovely Emmy Rossum, who only a few years earlier would have been a shoo-in for Lena, instead relishes the show-piece role as sexy bad witch Ridley Duchannes who sashays into town with trouble in mind. Like a lot of writer-directors Richard LaGravenese is a prose stylist foremost and does not bring as vivid a visual grammar to proceedings as one would hope, resulting in some clunky storytelling. However, the film is beautifully shot by D.P. Philippe Rousselot and laden with memorable moments from the chilling as Macon magically induces Ethan into recounting his doomed future (failed marriage and career climaxing in suicide) to the magical in a visit to the cinema where Lena and Ethan see a vision from their shared civil war past playing on the silver screen.