Your reaction to the first of what could be as many as four films in this series could depend entirely on how you respond to theatrics. If you tend to enjoy over-the-top performances, grand production design, and a general sense of the larger than life, then you might actually like BEAUTIFUL CREATURES, the latest film from writer-director Richard LaGravenese, based on the novel by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl.
I tend not to respond well to such devices, but what does pull me into just about any story are believable, emotionally driven relationships and an attempt at character development. And lucky for us, at the core of this tale of witches vs. Christians (with more costume changes than a Cher concert) is rock solid chemistry between the two, virtually unknown lead actors. And it was the desire to see these two personable people in scene after scene together that tipped my scale toward recommending this attempt at modern Gothic storytelling.
Young Ethan Wate (Alden Ehrenreich, who had key roles in the last two Francis Ford Coppola films) sees himself as trapped by the city limits of his small South Carolina town, where everyone knows each other's business, and if your beliefs stray even a little, you're treated like an outcast, and in some cases even an evil-doer. So imagine the town's response to the Ravenwood family, and its matriarch Macon Ravenwood (Jeremy Irons), whose extended family includes 15-year-old Lena Duchannes (Alice Englert, the daughter of the great filmmaker Jane Campion and soon to be seen in the British drama GINGER AND ROSA). The entire family are witches (or Casters, as they like to be called), who each must choose whether they are going to follow the path of light or dark when they turn 16.
Alice is tempted by dark forces in her life, especially the dark queen Sarafine (Emma Thompson) and her well-meaning but corrupted and vampy cousin Ridley (Emmy Rossum). But according to many, it is Alice's growing feelings for Alden that put her at the most risk of joining Team Dark on her birthday. And thus the emotional weight of their relationship goes up against the fate of Alice's soul. Alden's attempt to find a way to keep Alice from going dark by enlisting the help of Amma (Viola Davis), a type of knowledgeable spell caster and medium who pretty much understands all there is to know about witches without being one herself.
Now you're probably wondering, what the hell are three Oscar winner (Thompson, Irons and Davis) and one recent Emmy winner (the great Margo Martindale) doing in this supernatural-based teen romance? Well, they're hamming it up; that's what. To say that Irons and Thompson are chewing scenery and overplaying every scene they're in would be a gross misunderstanding of the phrase. Thompson waves her arms around so much, I thought she was directing traffic. She bobs and weaves her body, while adopting a Southern accent that no Southerner would claim as being from their region of the country. But, that doesn't mean it isn't fun to watch such a gifted performer utterly go for broke.
The special effects in BEAUTIFUL CREATURES are overused and nothing special. The costumes and sets are gaudy and ridiculous, and pretty much all non-witch characters feel like one-dimensional collections of clichéd traits. But as I mentioned, the two leads have a chemistry that is hard to resist, and clearly LaGravenese saw this and used it effectively. During the editing of the film, he actually kept in entire sequences where Alden and Alice just talk. They aren't driving the plot forward; they are simply letting us get to know them as they get to know each other. At heart, these two are just the school outcasts who found love with each other, but they are also extremely good-looking kids who are drawn to each other, and who doesn't love that? But during the course of their engaging conversations, I got to learn about these characters and care about whether they ended up together.
The film gets unnecessarily complicated and sloppy in the third act as Alice's "claiming" arrives, but by then, I was already hooked into Alden and Alice's lives and wanted to know how they'd come out the other side of this kooky story. As I said, it may be tough for a lot of people to look past the playing-to-the-back-row acting being supplied by the supporting cast of BEAUTIFUL CREATURES, but if you find yourself prone to camp, you may particularly enjoy the sequence where Irons and Thompson square off in a church (at least Davis seems appropriately dialed back).
The film works best when you peer through the frills and concentrate of the strong romance that keeps this film's heart beating. It's certainly a more acceptable and realistic relationship than the one featured in this week's other big romantic endeavor (also set in the Carolinas), SAFE HAVEN.