Everything you hated about Twilight — the bad dialogue, the sappy scenarios and drippy characters, the eye-rolling politics — is made right in Beautiful Creatures. This flick is a supernatural high school romance full of teenagers who talk like real human beings and make decisions that aren't entirely stupid. And yet it's still a terrific, fun flight of fancy about witches, ghosts of the Civil War, and a small southern town where church ladies fight librarians for the souls of the young. This is the movie you never expected to like — but you probably will.
The comparisons between Beautiful Creatures and Twilight are inevitable — not least because the books they're based on were written after the authors' teenage kids challenged them to write a cool supernatural book about high school that didn't include stupid sparkly vampires. It turned out that they could. Under the critical guidance of several teenagers, they produced a series about a young man, Ethan, whose entire life changes when the angry witch Lena comes to his tiny southern town and matriculates into high school.
Beautiful Creatures begins with Ethan's point of view, and as the camera floats through his town, he tells us in voiceover how lame the place is and how all he wants to do is leave. The movie theater never gets current movies and there is no place for teenagers to hang out, but there are a dozen churches and people are always banning books. Ethan has made it his special project to read those banned books. When we first meet Ethan, his nose is buried in Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five, and he's musing about how cool it would be to come "unstuck in time" like the novel's hero. He's also obsessing about a beautiful young woman he's been seeing in his dreams, and drawing her, Sandman-style, in his notebook. This young woman is, of course, Lena.
When Lena shows up mysteriously in Ethan's class on his first day of junior year, with her goth-black hair and her alt.country sweater, she's immediately victimized by the scrubbed Christian girls in Ethan's class. In between suggesting that Lena is Satanic, these girls tell their English teacher that they won't read To Kill a Mockingbird because their mothers say it isn't Christian. One of the not-so-subtle messages of Beautiful Creatures is that southern conservatism is basically more evil than bad witches could ever be. Though the message is a little clunky and simplistic, it's hard not to enjoy the hijinks when Emma Thompson arrives to chew the scenery as Mrs. Lincoln, the town's most bigoted church lady.
There's a lot of broad humor as Mrs. Lincoln takes on Lena's rich uncle (Jeremy Irons), a hermit who has welcomed Lena to his home because he wants to protect her in the day leading up to her witchy coming of age on her sixteenth birthday. Lena and her uncle, like all people of their kind, prefer to be called "casters" — and they are basically the town minority group. Though the casters aren't out to the townspeople about their powers, it doesn't take much for Mrs. Lincoln and Co. to figure out that there's something a little supernatural about the lightning strikes and random glass explosions that happen when Lena is around.
It also doesn't take much for Ethan to figure it out, either. He knows there's something weird going on with her, but he's drawn to her anyway — partly because he's intrigued by the books she's reading. When he asks whether Charles Bukowski is a "good" poet, Lena replies snarkily, "Define good." And that exchange becomes the kind of philosophical heart of this movie. We discover quickly that Lena's family are all casters, and that young women in the family must be "claimed" for good or evil on their sixteenth birthdays. Lena's cousin, a siren named Ridley, has already been claimed for evil — and Lena fears that she will be, too. Given how powerful she is, this could mean a seriously terrifying future for humanity.
When Ethan and Lena fall in love, things get especially complicated. Lena's family doesn't approve of her consorting with humans, partly out of prejudice, but partly because there's a curse that haunts the family that's connected to the "claiming." And it turns out that Ethan could be part of this curse, due his town's history during the Civil War. There's a delicious but not terribly complicated mystery here about southern history, but there are also just the ordinary tribulations of two smart, imaginative teenagers falling in love for the first time. Unlike their Twilight foils, Bella and Edward, this teenage couple actually tries to think about the consequences of their relationship. They even help each other get through tough times instead of tormenting each other (though there is a little bit of tragic yearning of course). And they deal with the real-world limitations on their relationship instead of looking forward to eternal, magical happiness.
Ultimately, Beautiful Creatures isn't just about magical smackdowns (though there are those) and cartoonish southern stereotypes. It's about young adults asking themselves what it would mean to be a good person. There are various models of good in Ethan's town, ranging from Mrs. Lincoln's religious conservatism to Lena's uncle's arch elitism. But none of them are appealing. Lena and Ethan are going to have to figure out for themselves what it would mean to "define good," and this movie is brave enough to suggest that there is no easy answer. It helps that Alice Englert as Lena delivers a subtle, moody performance, and Alden Ehrenreich as Ethan provides her with a charming, sunny counterpart.
Though Beautiful Creatures is occasionally simplistic, and definitely goofy, it's also a genuinely compassionate story of what it's like to make your first adult decisions in a world where nothing is black or white. Don't be fooled into thinking this is just another adolescent magic fantasy. It's a lot more than that, and it's fun to watch a supernatural high school story done right for once.