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REVIEW

Beautiful Creatures

By DAN LYBARGER SPECIAL TO THE DEMOCRAT-GAZETTE

This article was published February 15, 2013 at 2:48 a.m.

Lena (Alice Englert) and Ethan (Alden Ehrenreich) are young lovers with supernatural powers in Beautiful Creatures.

— Now that the sparkly vampires and the shirtless werewolves have finished bonding with underage girls, it’s a safe bet that young adult supernatural romances have nowhere to go but up, right?

For the most part, that’s correct.

Beautiful Creatures has several advantages over its bloodsucking, howling predecessor. Brooklyn-born writer-director Richard LaGravenese (who wrote The Bridges of Madison County and directed Freedom Writers) has better storytelling instincts and humor and has access to special effects that don’t look like they were left over from The Six Million Dollar Man. For the most part, he also has a stronger cast and a female protagonist who isn’t practicing to be a human doormat.

There’s also a stronger sense of atmosphere in Beautiful Creatures than there was in Twilight movies. LaGravenese plays up the South Carolina setting with mixed results. There’s a sense of class levels and social orders, but Louisiana has to work overtime to pass for a Carolina, and California-bred leading man Alden Ehrenreich wrestles mightily with his “hick” accent (his complaint of almost getting a “hort attack” is amusingly grating).

Adapted from Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl’s novel, Beautiful Creatures follows a young fellow named Ethan Wate, a high-schooler whose favorite hobby is reading books the local leaders want banned (Kurt Vonnegut is his favorite). Ethan’s a jock, but for him football is a way to get to a good, preferably out-of-state school.

Being open-minded and blue-collar makes him a poor fit in the fictional small town of Gatlin, and his relationship with the popular and irritatingly devout Emily Asher (Zoey Deutch) seems more obligatory than romantic.

Tensions rise when a fellow 15-year-old named Lena Duchannes (Alice Englert, talented daughter of The Piano director Jane Campion) starts taking classes with Ethan. Because she’s the niece of Gatlin’s hermetic patriarch Macon Ravenwood (Jeremy Irons, oozing patrician condescension), Emily and her ilk dislike Lena immediately.

It’s not just class envy.

Emily’s strict Christian cohorts may run Gatlin, but the Ravenwoods practically own all of it. Furthermore, while they aren’t devil worshippers as the rumor mill suggests, the Ravenwoods are witches and warlocks.

Sorry, I should have used the more politically correct term, “casters.”

If dealing with religious and social prejudices weren’t enough, the Ravenwood clan is divided between dark and light casters, and the former are vying to take control, not just of their own demographic, but the world in general.

Ethan’s new girlfriend is more than a forbidden love. How she wields her new found power could have genocidal consequences.

Because there are stakes greater than simple romantic gratification, Beautiful Creatures is consistently engaging even if you can spot Northerners every time they open their mouths.

The Brits and the Australians (probably just Engler) have an easier time nailing the Southern characters than the Yankees do. They not only have an easier time nailing a reasonably convincing dialect, but they seem more at home with the social mores as well. Emma Thompson is expectedly great as a domineering gadfly whose piety comes short in the Christian charity department. As the mysterious town librarian, South Carolina native Viola Davis (The Help) is the only genuine Southerner among the principal cast.

The one Yankee who really shines is Emmy Rossum, as Lena’s cousin who makes no secret of whether she’s a light or dark caster. Light casters generally don’t leave body counts.

If Ehrenreich’s dialect needs work, at least he and Engler have an appealing chemistry. Beautiful Creatures also poses the intriguing question of what good power or piety is in the absence of love. The Apostle Paul was obviously right about this point, and director LaGravenese knows better than to mess with a good idea.

Beautiful Creatures 79 Cast: Alden Ehrenreich, Alice Englert, Jeremy Irons, Viola Davis, Emmy Rossum, Thomas Mann, Emma Thompson, Eileen Atkins, Margo Martindale, Zoey Deutch, Tiffany Boone Director: Richard LaGravenese Rating: PG-13, for violence, scary images and some sexual material Running time: 124 minutes

MovieStyle, Pages 35 on 02/15/2013

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