Eileen Atkins, left, Alice Englert and Jeremy Irons star in "Beautiful… (John Bramley, Warner Bros. )
Maybe there really are supernatural forces at work in this world. How else to explain "Beautiful Creatures"? The movie is an intriguing, intelligent enigma — three words not typically associated with teen romances.
A couple of unknown heartthrobs provide the film's X-factor, while its angst lies in true love's struggle against otherworldly powers, Civil War flashbacks, literary conceits and high school friction.
Besides, any film that credibly references poet Charles Bukowski has my attention.
Based on the first book in Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl's bestselling young-adult series, "Beautiful Creatures" is also pure pop-culture confection. In adapting the novel, writer-director Richard LaGravenese has been as ruthless as clever in compressing characters, jettisoning convoluted action and sharpening dialogue.
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The movie's got a cool alt-rock sound thanks to the haunting music of the Brit band thenewno2, and a graceful grunge look. To put it in perspective, the movie reaches the artistic heights hoped for, but never quite scaled by "Twilight" — heresy, I know.
Alden Ehrenreich and Alice Englert star as the young lovers Ethan and Lena. One's a mortal, the other a caster (who knew "witch" was so un-PC). They are caught in a Romeo and Juliet-esque maelstrom, beautifully whipped up by a crack creative team including cinematographer Philippe Rousselot, production designer Richard Sherman and effects wizards Matt Kutcher (special) and Joe Harkins (visual).
As Ethan and Lena fight to survive high school and other unnatural forces, Englert and Ehrenreich are so charged they practically give off sparks. Jeremy Irons, Emma Thompson, Viola Davis and Emmy Rossum bring their own electricity.
The film is set in the fictional Gatlin, S.C., a small town steeped in old-South sentimentality and superstition. There are two mysteries, according to Ethan, our narrator — why anyone stays and whether the crumbling plantation called Ravenwood is haunted. Like Scout in "To Kill a Mockingbird," one of Ethan's favorite books, he is wise beyond his years and his thoughts frame the story.
High school is just back in session, with everyone slipping into their designated spot on the coolness scale, when the arrival of Lena Duchannes, the wind-blown, raven-haired niece of Macon Ravenwood (Irons), sets things on edge. Particularly upset are the cheerleading sweet tarts Emily Asher (Zoey Deutch), who is also Ethan's ex, and Savannah Snow (Tiffany Boone), the mayor's daughter. Their sniping quickly gets to the new girl, whose distress shatters the windows right in the middle of class.
Lena turns out to be a glass-shattering natural, make that Natural — a caster with ginormous powers, most having to do with roiling the weather patterns. Ethan falls hard and fast, but he was already primed since Lena was haunting his dreams long before she set her combat boots in Gatlin. If her powers hadn't cursed her, her thrift-store chic would. (Kudos to costume designer Jeffrey Kurland for this and much more.)
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The film turns on Lena's rapidly approaching 16th birthday. It's the witching hour so to speak for all Ravenwood casters — the moment their fate is sealed, souls claimed by either the darkness or the light. There's a curse that must be broken, a Civil War re-enactment that must take place and the town folk to appease. Then there's the old locket that keeps dropping the couple into the middle of a Civil War-era battle. It's a lot.
When it comes to conflict, the film has a gift in its central villain — a two-fer of sorts with a deliciously evil Thompson playing the local blowhard, a Daughters of the American Revolution devotee named Mrs. Lincoln — and Sarafine — the most powerful caster in the world, who quickly takes control of the debate and Mrs. Lincoln's body. Irons' Uncle Macon is in charge of style, the interior design of Ravenwood changing to match his fuming that mortals and immortals shouldn't mix. Ridley (Rossum), Lena's sexy dark caster cousin, and Amma (Davis), the town librarian, come bearing their own agendas.
In the midst of all this confusion — and anchoring the film — is Ethan and Lena's love story. Both actors are good at mining the emotional cross-currents that keep that first love so rocky.
Perhaps we should expect the daughter of director Jane Campion to be exceptional, but there is a distinctive quality and depth to Englert's acting that has the feel of something special. Ehrenreich, who manages a drawl as thick as molasses, is one of the most appealing actors to come along in some time, shifting effortlessly among the movie's many moods.
As does the director — handling the visual and emotional swings of "Beautiful Creatures" with real finesse. Though LaGravenese got an Oscar nomination for "The Fisher King" screenplay, his writing/directing efforts — "P.S. I Love You" and "Freedom Writers" the bigger ones — haven't quite gelled. Until now. It seems the filmmaker has found the secret to making a teenager's heartthrob — give them a brain along with the beauty.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for violence, scary images and some sexual material
Running time: 2 hours, 4 minutes
Playing: In general release
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