Review: 'Beautiful Creatures' is a thinking-person's 'Twilight'

Alden Ehrenreich, left, and Alice Englert star in "Beautiful Creatures."

Photo by John Bramley, © 2013 Alcon Entertainment, LLC

Alden Ehrenreich, left, and Alice Englert star in "Beautiful Creatures."

A supernatural love story set in the South which tells the tale of two star-crossed lovers: Ethan, a young man longing to escape his small ...

Rating: PG-13 for violence, scary images and some sexual material

Length: 132 minutes

Released: February 14, 2013 Nationwide

Cast: Emma Thompson, Jeremy Irons, Thomas Mann, Emmy Rossum, Viola Davis

Director: Richard LaGravenese

Writer: Richard LaGravenese, Kami Garcia, argaret Stohl

More info and showtimes »

We have come a long way since Bette Davis said the immortal line, "I'd really like you, but I just washed my hair." Today, that idea has morphed into "I'd really like to have sex with you, but I'm afraid I might kill you." Or as the teenage witch in "Beautiful Creatures" says to her mortal boyfriend, "I'm scared I'm going to hurt you. I mean kill you hurt you."

This is silly stuff, but powerful all the same. With the sexes reversed, this sentiment propelled the entire "Twilight" saga, which transmuted a teenage virgin's anxiety into her vampire boyfriend's terror that he might devour her. In a similar way, a teenage boy in "Beautiful Creatures" feels that finding a girl who likes him is a bigger miracle than her being a supernatural being. He wants to prove himself, like all young men, and if that means risking death just to have a girlfriend, hey, what's the big deal? Sex can kill you — but it's worth it.

To watch "Beautiful Creatures" is to be impressed at how it taps into the passions, anxieties and distorted perceptions of youth, almost as if someone devised a series of buttons to press — and out came money. The boy's mother is dead, which makes his need for the feminine even more intense. He is stuck in high school and can't wait for his life to start. He is surrounded by provincials and longs for something special. He lives in a drab small town and dreams of New York City.

Yet in the actual experience of it, "Beautiful Creatures" doesn't feel like a cynical product, but rather like something arrived at organically. Written and directed by Richard LaGravenese, from the novel by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl, it's about a teenage boy, Ethan (Alden Ehrenreich), who falls in love with Lena (Alice Englert), the new girl in town, and tries to help her through a difficult transition.

The transition in this case is that in 75 days, on her 16th birthday, she will undergo The Claiming, a rite of passage all female witches — or "casters" — must go through. In a Claiming, a girl's soul is chosen by either the dark side or the light side. She will become either good or evil. The way she goes will have something to do with who she is intrinsically, but as in all things in life, there are complications and political considerations, so that, nice as Lena may be, her fate is hardly assured.

Surrounding these two young actors are several heavyweight actors, including Jeremy Irons as Lena's uncle Macon, who even dresses like he's evil. But as casters go, he's actually a decent guy. The one to look out for is Emma Thompson, who gets to tap into her roots as a comedienne as Lena's evil mother, who is pure spirit but chooses to inhabit, just for laughs, the town's most conservative church lady. Thus, Thompson has the pleasure of playing two Southern types, the prim, repressed and judgmental, and the flamboyant, mischievous and confident.

"Beautiful Creatures" has its metaphysical cosmology worked out, and it gives it to us in doses big enough that we understand its rules and believe in its world, but not so big that it starts to get cute or that we stop caring. Usually, when there is any explaining to be done, Viola Davis, as a mystical librarian, does it, and, as always, Davis looks like she's seen things. She's telling you some of it, but she has seen even more.

Still, the main focus remains on those nice kids, and though all viewers over the age of 18 will find themselves thinking, "Break up, and meet someone else," the movie will remind you of a time when sensible thinking was just not an option, and of how exhilarating that felt. The human values are very much at center stage.

In fact, "Beautiful Creatures" could easily become the thinking-person's "Twilight," assuming all that thinking doesn't scare away audiences.

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