I wasn’t overly impressed when I read Beautiful Creatures, the popular young-adult novel by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl. So I was delighted to find myself thoroughly enjoying the movie version, or at least the first half of it. The rest of the movie is deeply flawed, but of all the teen fantasy sagas that have been brought to the big screen, this one is the funniest by some distance. That has to count for something.
Set in a tiny town in South Carolina, the film is about Ethan Wate (Alden Ehrenreich), a high school junior who’s being raised by Amma (Viola Davis), the town librarian and his late mother’s best friend. His mother’s accidental death has turned his father into a shut-in, which is probably why Ethan reaches out to Lena Duchannes (Alice Englert), the new girl in town who has moved in with her uncle Macon (Jeremy Irons), a wealthy recluse who’s widely regarded as a boogeyman. Unlike the other girls, Lena is difficult and antisocial, reads Charles Bukowski, and doesn’t wear sexy outfits to school. As Ethan falls for her, he finds that she’s different in another way, too: She and the rest of her family have magical powers. She’s still learning to control hers, and she’s a key figure in an ongoing struggle between good and evil. She’s a witch, though she says, “We prefer the term ‘Caster.’ ”
Reading the above, fans of the book will see that a couple of characters have been conflated. Writer-director Richard LaGravenese plays fast and loose with the source, and that’s mostly a good thing. He streamlines the book’s Civil War romance subplot and gets rid of the dopey plot device wherein Ethan and Lena can communicate telepathically. The novel is not funny, and yet LaGravenese brings both first-rate comic material and an astute sense of timing to the story. The jokes come in all forms: throwaway lines (asked how he’s sleeping, Ethan says, “I envy people in comas,”), sight gags (a misspelled movie theater marquee illustrating Ethan’s complaint about his town’s entertainment options), and a set piece in which Ethan starts to outline his career ambitions, only to have a magic spell turn his description into a bleak future for himself.
Ehrenreich plays that and everything else with great style. The newcomer is squinty, with a smile that can easily be mistaken for a smirk. He looks less like a movie star than an obnoxious frat boy in a slasher flick who gets killed halfway through. No matter — he’s got his character’s “thoughtful jock” side nailed down, as Ethan should be one of the popular kids at school but sees his town’s backwardness and narrow-mindedness all too clearly. Ehrenreich has a breezy charm and an excellent sense of comic timing, and his scenes with Englert (another newcomer, this one from New Zealand, and the real-life daughter of filmmaker Jane Campion) throw off all manner of chemistry. He’s good, too, in a late speech in which his attempt to buck up Lena’s morale winds up revealing Ethan’s pain over his parents. This actor looks like a find.
Despite his efforts, I can pinpoint exactly when the film takes a nosedive. It’s during a scene midway through, when Macon faces down his nemesis Sarafine (Emma Thompson), an evil Caster who has temporarily possessed the town busybody. Though the British thesps have fun with their Southern accents, the scene is way too long and it kills the movie’s mojo. The story is built on a ticking clock, as Lena counts down to her 16th birthday when she’ll be claimed for either the dark side or the light, and LaGravenese handles the time element so badly that Thanksgiving appears to fall before Halloween. He’s got no flair for the supernatural part of this story, either. The early scene with a bullied Lena using her mind to blow out her classroom windows lands with a thud, and the confrontation between Lena and her sinister cousin (Emmy Rossum) around a spinning dinner table is just too silly. Ethan should be our entry point into this world of light and dark Casters with competing agendas and different powers. Instead, it just swallows him up. He’s almost entirely sidelined during the climactic showdown that decides Lena’s fate — why do this to your most interesting character?
Then again, there are three more novels in the series, which means there’s time to make things up to him if this movie buys itself the sequel that the studio is undoubtedly hoping for. The talent on hand bodes better for the future of this potential series than it ever did for that lamebrained, way-too-serious Twilight franchise. If its successors turn out as funny as Beautiful Creatures at its best, I’ll be happy to have the series around.
Starring Alden Ehrenreich and Alice Englert. Written and directed by Richard LaGravenese, based on Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl’s novel. Rated PG-13.