This is how I imagine the pitch meeting. "It's like Twilight meets She's All That, but with a gritty, urban feel and a cameo by an Olsen twin!" Beastly is an odd new paint-by-numbers teen genre flick, a hodgepodge of contrived romance and gothic horror. Its lineage can be traced straight back to Twilight. It's going to be the first in a long line of movies and TV that will channel Stephenie Meyer's vampire classic and make teen sex scary again.
Beastly's establishing shots are so stylized and exaggerated that you think at first you're watching a movie like Heathers or Election. We see the idealized, half-clad bodies of supermodels splashed on the walls of every New York City skyscraper, then zoom through the doors of gleaming private school to see an election speech from our supermodelly hero Kyle (Alex Pettyfer). The upshot of Kyle's speech, which is supposed to get him made president of the "green council," is basically that he's hot and rich and that's what everybody likes so just give in and vote crassly. "Embrace the suck" is his election slogan. Like I said, it's so exaggerated that it feels like satire.
But it's not. Turns out Kyle really is just flagrantly stupid and rich, the pampered son of a TV news anchor. And the gothy girl who glared at him during his speech really is a witch. An Olsen twin witch! She's pissed off that he's always making fun of "ugly" people - which this movie defines as tattooed hipsters, people of color, the disabled, and the poor. So she casts a spell that turns him "ugly," complete with face piercings, scars, and weird tattoos on his eyebrows that say "embrace suck." If he doesn't find somebody to love him in his ugly state in one year, he'll stay all tattooey forever.
Doesn't that sound weirdly like the setup to She's All That? That was the classic 1990s teen romance flick where the popular guy takes a dare where he'll hit on the weird, ugly chick and if she agrees to go to prom with him he wins. Except in Beastly, he wins if he can get the ugly chick to like him when he's ugly too! Because yeah, the premise is that the only person who will love Kyle now is an "ugly" girl named Lindy (Vanessa Hudgens) with an immigrant, drug addict dad who lives in the poor part of town.
Kyle's dad can't deal with his cursed, ugly son, so he sticks him in a Brooklyn apartment - oh, horror! - with a Jamaican maid and a blind tutor (Neil Patrick Harris, the only good thing in this movie). So yes, the film's uglies are now all together, and Kyle stalks Lindy until he's able to save her from some sort of nebulous drug deal gone wrong with her dad. At which point he demands that her dad "give her" to him "for safety." Yeah, it's a very Twilighty moment, except it makes even less sense. Why would her dad just hand his nearly-adult daughter over to a random guy on the street? And why would she go?
And there's your romance setup - Kyle has a few months left to seduce the imprisoned Lindy by building her a greenhouse and showing her that he's really nice under the piercings. It's all pretty creepy, especially when you consider his motives (to become pretty again) and his methods (he's rich so he can put Lindy up in his swank pad and drive her out to the country house for romancing). Again, this whole manipulate-the-ignorant-girl plot has the feeling of Twilight, except that Kyle is supposed to be the opposite of Edward in terms of his hotness quotient. Though of course he is hot, which is demonstrated over and over in the many unnecessary scenes of Pettyfer writing shirtlessly in his garret. (Yes he has a garret.) Also, Lindy is a lot more clueless than Bella.
In a world of Facebook hookups and downloadable porn, how do you reinvent romance? As the Twilight phenomenon proves, you do it by figuring out a clever way to make sex scary and confusing again. No wonder the gothic touches work so well here.
This coming weekend brings two new teen gothic tales to the theater, too: Red Riding Hood (directed by Catherine Hardwicke, who also directed the first Twilight movie), and a new version of Jane Eyre that's in limited U.S. release. Jane Eyre is essentially the template for all these stories: A vulnerable woman, trapped by circumstance in a rich man's broody house, finds herself swept away by said man even though she knows there's something terrifying that haunts him. In the case of Jane Eyre, the terrifying thing is Rochester's crazy wife, freaking out in the attic. And the fact that he would leave her in the attic is pretty scary too.
Twilight and Beastly cut right to the chase and make the men into monsters - though misunderstood ones, like the original gothic monster boytoy Beast from Beauty and the Beast. The point is, these are movies that want to remystify sex. Along the way, they make men scary and women vulnerable again, even though we live in a world where gender roles have become a lot more complicated than that.