Sunday, February 17, 2013

Creature Features: BEAUTIFUL CREATURES


Rare is the film adaptation of the first book in a young adult series that tells a full and complete story in and of itself. Rarer still is the Hollywood spectacle that’s about a young woman realizing her potential to make her own destiny and take charge of her own powers. That Beautiful Creatures is a good example of both is some kind of minor miracle of popcorn filmmaking. In broad strokes the film about a mysterious new girl (Alice Englert) and the good-natured local boy (Alden Ehrenreich) who is drawn in by what makes her different is like many teen paranormal romances that have popped up in recent years drifting off of the success of all kinds of roughly congruent hits and fads. But in the specifics, this film sets itself apart by being full of local color, fizzles of real danger and a romance that works all the better for how relaxed and casual it feels. It’s not burdened by haphazard world building or overpowered by a flimsy urgency derived from True Love. It’s a pop horror fantasy, a piece of Southern Gothic that devours the Twilight template for the better.

It’s sharper and more literary than you’d think with flashes of wit and an embrace of the concept’s creepiness. The movie tips its hand with an early shot of a Vonnegut novel in the male lead’s hands. (I’m not saying it’s as good as Vonnegut, just that it’s in the ballpark.) He’s Ethan, a smart high school kid who is mourning the death of his mother. He’s interested in good books – or at least all the ones banned by the moralizing busybodies in this small South Carolina backwoods town. (Nice details of the production design are the empty Amazon envelopes sitting next to the stacks of books in his room.) He’s also interested in getting out of town as soon as he can by applying to any and every college that’s at least 1000 miles away. “Go to hell,” a local goody goody girl snaps at him, meaning every word of it. “I’d like to stop off at New York first,” is his smirking reply. But soon he has reason to stay, at least for a little while, as he tries to get to know Lena Duchannes, a sullen, pretty girl who arrives to live in the town’s biggest, most secretive house with her uncle, the reclusive Macon Ravenwood (Jeremy Irons), a man the town gossips about freely since he’s never around to disprove their conjectures.

The leads here are fun, charismatic, likable young performers. Ehrenreich, so good in Francis Ford Coppola’s Tetro, has a looseness to his affable screen presence here. He’s easy to like and root for. He has a good match in Englert, daughter of the great director Jane Campion. She seems otherworldly; her dark eyes look out of a pale face as if possessed with a secret. That sense of mystery is what leads the boy, and by extension the audience, to want to learn more about her. They haven’t known each other for very long when Lena’s family arrives from out of town, including a sashaying, bewitching Emmy Rossum and a flashily bewigged flibbertigibbet Margo Martindale, ready to perform some of kind of secret ritual. As the full extent of the family’s cursed history and paranormal powers come into play as writer-director Richard LaGravenese’s script (from Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl’s novel) springs mostly satisfying supernatural surprises, the movie becomes pleasantly complicated with stakes that matter.

As Philipe Rousselot's fine cinematography captures a stormy, puzzling battle of forces both good and bad as it clouds the skies behind the humble downtown, the swaying weeping willows and creepy gated manors, the film never loses sight or shies away from the fact that it’s also a solid chunk of cheese on which veteran performers can chew. There are darkly murky, occasionally unconvincing, special effects that are whipped up whenever the beautiful creatures begin threatening each other, but the best effect of all is the sight of Jeremy Irons gravely scratching out ominous monologues and heavy pronouncements of exposition. The town also has a sharp-tongued Bible thumper played by Emma Thompson, who plays up her down-to-earth antagonism with real relish, a pure actorly delight that really ramps up after her character goes through a devilish transformation of sorts. Also on hand is a wise librarian played by Viola Davis, who gets a few juicy scenes of her own, although she plays it in a lower register than the scene chewers dancing around her.

LaGravenese, whose work on such films as Freedom Writers and P.S., I Love You didn’t prepare me for how good this picture is, finds an appealing genre groove, making the metaphors work for him as he plays out a darkly simmering story of young adult fiction in an uncommonly compelling way. What’s most satisfying is how it starts as the story of a local boy intrigued by an outsider girl that slowly shifts to being her story. It’s a shift in perspective that’s welcome, especially as the movie starts with his narration and, by the end, includes a voice over from her, taking charge and finishing her part of the story herself. Though it’s largely a fun, mildly goofy, effects-embellished, teen-centric, small-town horror fantasy with a sizable dose of low-key romance, it’s also a movie about how society claims and labels certain types of women as good or bad and what it takes for young women to take charge and make their own decisions about who they want to be. That it manages to be all things at once and for the most part get away with it too is something worth noting, even celebrating.


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