Film Review: Beautiful Creatures

A young witch falls for an open-minded mortal in this teen romance based on a young-adult best-seller.

The search for the new Twilight movie franchise proceeds apace, and whether this adaption of the first in the four-book young-adult series is it, only the box office and teenage hormones can tell. Taken on its own merits as a standalone, Beautiful Creatures—no relation to the 2000 British crime drama starring Susan Lynch and Rachel Weisz—is densely, atmospherically shot, with two appealing leads and welcome shout-outs to such banned-book regulars as Kurt Vonnegut and Charles Bukowski, so it's hard to fault any film that exposes kids to blow-their-mind, consciousness-expanding literature.

All that said, this beautifully shot and often heartfelt teen romance, at just over two hours long, suffers from the same single biggest complaint about the 600-page book: It drags in spots and repeats itself. Not that the material lends itself to quick-cut kineticism, but there's still a difference between leisurely and languid.

Ethan Wate (an impressive Alden Ehrenreich) is starting his junior year of high school in fictional small-town Gatlin, South Carolina. A well-liked member of the track team who's unafraid to wear his Buddy Holly glasses when reading Slaughterhouse-Five or To Kill a Mockingbird, he dreams of escape to college in New York or somewhere equally far away.

As in Twilight, a new kid joins his class this year: 15-year-old Lena Duchannes (Australia-born Alice Englert, daughter of Oscar-winning The Piano director Jane Campion). Ethan's prim, blonde ex, Emily (Zoey Deutch, daughter of actress Lea Thompson and director Howard Deutch) thinks there's something off and evil about the tattooed newcomer, and like others in the community is quick with accusations of Satanism and the supernatural. And ironically, though the movie casts them as Bible-thumping morons, the morons are right: Lena, the niece of rich, reclusive town patriarch Macon Ravenwood (Jeremy Irons), is a "caster," the preferred term for witch. (As she explains, in one of the occasionally witty bits that flit through the movie, "witch" is like calling a smart kid a geek or an athletic kid a jock. That could add a whole new dimension to The Breakfast Club.) Regardless, the open-minded Ethan falls for her, and she for him—predestined, perhaps, since they've unknowingly dreamt of each other for months.

Complicating their passage to happily "Bewitched" ever after, however, is that Lena will soon turn 16, at which point an event called The Claiming will channel her into her destiny of being either a light or a dark caster. Macon was dark but willed himself light for Lena's sake—although females, Lena explains to Ethan, can't do that for some reason. And both Lena's cackling mom, Serafine, who takes over an old biddy's body (Emma Thompson), and cousin Ridley (Emmy Rossum) want to take her to the dark side, Luke.

Ehrenreich, with the square head of a Michael Shannon and the impish grin of a Jack Nicholson, steals the show with his offbeat looks and his utter earnestness as Ethan. The equally up-and-coming Englert resembles a young Emily Blunt and captures the needed sense of Lena's anguish and her tentative steps toward first love.

Yet they and sterling cinematography and evocative production design aside, the film suffers from some of same plot holes as the book. Lena can control the weather and move objects—so why does she have to stand in the rain to flag down help when her car gets stuck on the road? And why doesn't she have a cell-phone? Why does the reclusive Macon, who doesn't want Ethan around, never lock either his front door or the gate at the end of the driveway? There's another, quite big one, but it'd be a spoiler to point it out.

As well, the tone of the movie is awkwardly inconsistent. Ridley mystically causing a state trooper to plunge his car off a roadside and kill himself is treated like a "Dukes of Hazzard" joke. Lena demands to know if Serafine ever loved her, and Emma Thompson suddenly does what seems like a "Seinfeld" routine about, well, what is love, really? And an out-of-left-field Nancy Reagan joke fell flat in a screening-room audience of teens and tweens.

Still, keep an eye on the two rising stars—whether in any sequels or not.