The Gloriously Unexpected, #5: ‘Beautiful Creatures’ (2013)

by Gillian Kerruish

I received this film a few years ago from a friend whittling down her DVD collection, and I remember the gift was accompanied by a grimaced “Urg. Just another Twilight knock-off.” Oh dear. While I give every film the chance to shine or teach me something new, I am only human and there are some films which…let’s just say I won’t be buying into a sequel, let alone a series. As films go, I found Twilight to be average, at best. (Yes raging Team Ed fan, I see you. And I raise you my unbridled ire at getting a sparkle-monster, when the blurb clearly says ‘vampire’).

It seems that in the last few years, films adapted from young adult fiction have sprung up everywhere like hallucinogenic fungi. This isn’t to say that YA fiction is bad, just that some of it really should remain on the page instead of assaulting my screen with juvenile schmaltz. Needless to say, I started watching this film with a wariness bred from experience…

WHY? Why did I have to suffer through five years of twi-lit madness before this diamond could be made? Five minutes in and already Beautiful Creatures has blasted that other film (which I shall no longer name) out of the park, won the World Series, and started a rock band!

Beautiful Creatures is based on a novel of the same name; the first in the Caster Chronicles, penned by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl. Directed by Richard LaGravenese, the film stars Alden Ehrenreich and Alice Englert as our star-crossed lovers, who head up a talented cast – which surprisingly includes heavyweights Emma Thompson, Viola Davis, and Jeremy Irons.

Set in the fictional small town of Gatlin, South Carolina – in all its closeted, Bible-Belt, Civil War-re-enacting, bigoted glory – the story starts with a dream sequence. (This is young adult fiction, OK? There are going to be a few convenient ‘omens’ and neat plot tie-ups. It’s practically expected.) As a first-time viewer I was hesitant at this point, but then the narration started, and I didn’t care, because the dialogue is sparkling, witty, wry and frankly: intelligent.

Our dreamer, Ethan Wate (Ehrenreich) is a goofily charming, intelligent and curious young man, who seems to be have been fully neglected by his no-showing, recently-widowed father, and is watched over by the town librarian, Amma (Davis). He has a classic big-city itch: determined to get out of his little town as soon as he can. When we are introduced to his peers, it’s not hard to see why.

I nearly fall out of my seat, as Ethan’s sort-of-but-not-really girlfriend tells him how she doesn’t like him reading banned books (a list which seems to include any author of a philosophical or logical mindset), because “they’re bad for your mind”….Wow.

Hearing that single sentence in the strangely hypnotic and aesthetically pleasant accent of the classic Southern Belle, I’m having a hard time reconciling my attraction to her diphthongs with my utter repulsion to her mind-numbing ignorance. And this is why I love this film so much: we haven’t even met the conflict catalyst yet, and already I’m rooting for this goofy kid to get the hell out of Dodge. This is the first five minutes, and I’m already breathless.

Our catalyst comes in the form of Lena Duchannes (Englert), the world-weary, slightly goth scion of the town’s most secretive and feared family: the Ravenwoods. And I can’t help laughing when it is revealed that, yes, all their worst fears are true. The Ravenwoods – led by patriarch Macon Ravenwood (Irons) – are a clan of witches (though they prefer the term ‘caster’). Naturally, Ethan is fascinated by the new girl, who has moved back to Gatlin just before her sixteenth birthday to live with her uncle Macon (I’m sorry. I can’t get fake bacon sandwiches out of my mind now.). At which point, the movie takes a turn for the wyrd.

I’ll leave the rest of the plot for you to discover. At face value, the story follows the classic “boy meets girl, girl has a coming of age mission, boy battles immeasurable hazards to be with girl, everyone is happy in the end” teenage romance narrative. However the delivery of that story is a sharp, fantastic, series of gut-punches. The lovers’ interactions are sweet and beautiful, while the overall emotional gamut hurtles between supernatural highs, and quiet contemplative lows, never allowing the story to lag or brood. The characters range from unflinching caricature to lovably eccentric Original. The pace and timing of dialogue makes me weep with joy – there is nothing better than a masterful display of verbal sparring. It’s a beautiful performance which deserves an in-depth analysis for the visual aesthetics alone.

By the end of the film, I am desolate. I ask again: WHY? Why did this film have to be smothered by the sparkly ‘vampires’? It has ten times the narrative quality and a hundred times the empowering philosophy. In my honest opinion it is far more deserving of a multi-book deal. It crashed at the box office, for no better reason than having the grave misfortune of occurring five years too late.

That said, as an autonomous entry, this film stands firmly on its own two feet, without the need for a supporting sequel.

Watch it, own it, treasure it, repeat.

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