Movie Review: Beautiful Creatures (2013)

BC1About a quarter of the way through Beautiful Creatures, I wondered if I was seeing an early front-runner for Worst Film of the Year. Don’t get me wrong; I try not to approach any movie so cynically, but after thirty minutes of bad accents and southern clichés so over-the-top as to make True Blood seem subtle, I thought my head might explode. Fortunately, Beautiful Creatures gets a rush of blood halfway through that saves it from the depths of the Twilight franchise. It’s by no means a great depiction of witches and the Southern gothic tradition, but it’s better than you might expect for something out of the ‘tween-verse.

Ethan Wate (newbie Alden Ehrenreich, soon to also be seen in Chan Wook-Park’s Stoker) hates living in the South. We know this because he spends the first five minutes of the film rambling in voiceover about how his hometown of Gatlin, South Carolina is “full of two kinds of people: the ones too stupid to leave and the ones too stuck to move.” He goes on to point that people are intolerant, the movie theater is always out of date, and the nearest Starbucks is an hour away (the horror!) It’s a pretty typical rant from a high schooler wanting to leave his hometown, and it wouldn’t be so damn annoying if a.) the writing wasn’t so awkward and b.) Ehrenreich didn’t sport the worst excuse for a Southern accent you’ve ever heard, so high, whiny, and off-key that even Sookie Stackhouse would take offense.

BC2As the movie opens, Ethan’s mom – one of the few free-thinking, literate individuals in all of Gatlin – has died, leaving the boy to lead a bland, small-town existence in his junior year of high school. That is, until “the girl” shows up. Lena Duchannes (Alice Englert) is a pale, dark-haired shut-in in a sea of preppy blonde girls, the new kid at school whom everyone associates with her creepy uncle, “Old man Ravenwood.” While most of the kids call her “devil worshipper,” Ethan is fascinated by her. It’s not long before he’s sneaking on to her property, breaking into her house, pushing his way into her family gatherings – you know, typical boyfriend behavior – before he’s swept up in the Ravenwood’s world of witches (or “Casters,” as they preferred to be called), hurtling toward Lena’s sixteenth birthday, on which she’s supposed to be Claimed by the forces of Good or Evil. There’s plenty of corny moments in the process (Lena uses her witch powers to decorate her bedroom walls in glowing, Lisa Frank-style poetry), but the film works in a few creepier images in the process (Lena’s “mother” is occasionally a force to behold.)

BC3While Ehrenreich’s nasally tones calm down and Englert finds a footing that eventually makes her a strong female lead (the type that could put a delightful hurt on Bella Swan), it’s really two things that Beautiful Creatures has been applauded for. It’s renowned supporting cast, made up of Jeremy Irons, Emma Thompson, Viola Davis, Emmy Rossum, and Margo Martindale (fresh off her Emmy win for playing Mags in Justified); and its celebration of literature and understanding in the face of Southern intolerance. Both these things end up being double-edged swords, though. Irons, Thompson, and Rossum have a ball chewing the scenery, all over-the-top mannerisms and voices, but at times, things get so campy that I thought Thompson had wandered into her Nanny McPhee movies (and Jeremy Irons’ attempt at a Southern accent doesn’t sound that different than Simon Gruber in Die Hard with a Vengeance.) Still, hammy performances beat the pseudo-stoic non-acting of most tweens films any day, and Viola Davis in particular does a great job adding weight to what could have been just another bland mentor character. If this turns into franchise, hopefully Ehrenreich and Englert learn a thing or two from the rest of this cast.

At the same time, while I love any Hollywood movie that dares stick its finger in the eye of organized religion, Beautiful Creatures get ridiculous in its envisioning of the South. Blame it on the year I lived in Alabama, but I can’t help but roll my eyes when “the South” gets depicted as 99% religious nutjobs, praying in schools and trying to burn books, versus the one good, enlightened person in the entire town. We’ve seen it a hundred times before, and it’s same-old-same-old here. Admittedly, the film is supposed to be campy in some of these moments, but when you go for an over-the-top tone and miss your mark, it feels painfully like MADtv, people screeching at the top of their lungs for no good end.

Beautiful CreaturesThat said, props to any ‘tween film that would be so blunt in considering atheistic or polytheistic ideas, as well as making a show of smart kids reading interesting books and referring to a library as “my church.” You could say I’m just a sucker for any film that throws interesting politics my way, but in a youth culture full of books and films that try to make things as safe and free-of-thinking as possible, I appreciate the moments Beautiful Creatures pushes on those buttons. But if you go in looking for a full-on, complex depiction of Wicca, you’ll be grievously disappointed. The same goes for anyone who goes in looking to be scared to death, bowled over by amazing special effects, or immersed by a quality depiction of Southern culture. Again, you’ve got to plow through those first painful first 30 minutes to get to any of the good stuff. And when you do, Beautiful Creatures still won’t be anything you remember for years to come. But if you’re just interested in stories of teen romance, with a little flare for the supernatural, well, we all know you could do a hell of a lot worse.

Rating: 2.75/5 ★★¾☆☆ 

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About Josh_C

Josh has studied film at the Universities of Missouri and Florida, and he is currently studying horror film and popular culture in the Communication and Culture program at Indiana University. He has previously worked with the True/False Documentary Film Festival and the Ragtag Theatre in Columbia, Missouri, and he served as short-term production assistant on This Film Is Not Yet Rated. He is currently working on a dissertation on independent horror, horror film festivals, and horror fandom; feel free to contact him to discuss any of the above! He is also studying Dark Carnival Film Festival (www.darkcarnivalfilmfest.com).

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