While it’s never quite as spellbinding as its witchcraft-themed story line promises, “Beautiful Creatures” is a welcome addition to the ranks of paranormal teen romance. This is a spirited, playfully comic drama, “Twilight’s” shrewder, funnier stepsister. It conjures a world of Deep South wizardry where the real soul-sapping comes from small-minded prejudice. In this adaptation from a series of novels by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl, the idea that conjurers are a threat to decent society is largely far-right bigotry. It’s mainly a plot hurdle separating likable, bookish Ethan (Alden Ehrenreich) from the enchanting new girl in school, Lena (Alice Englert).
Ethan, chafing at the confines of his South Carolina hometown, instinctively takes to the enigmatic newcomer. She’s quite literally the girl of his dreams, the very image of a beauty he sees in his sleep. Naturally, he defends her against school gossips who brand her wealthy, reclusive family as devil worshipers. Even when the taunting provokes an inexplicable blowout of their classroom’s windows, Ethan is more concerned with Lena’s feelings than their classmates’ minor lacerations.
She’s reluctant to respond, fending off his attentions with a sassy sense of humor that complements his flirtatious silliness. They share a taste for banned books (Vonnegut and Bukowski must be up there smiling at the plugs the film sends their way) and see the small-town cranks and Civil War re-enactors who consider themselves “normal” to be nutty as pecan pie. Lena faces an identity crisis of her own, however. When she turns 16, her true nature as a good or evil “caster” will come to light, making her romance with sweet, mortal Ethan an iffy proposition.
Director Richard LaGravenese, who earned an Oscar nomination for scripting “The Fisher King,” tosses around a number of interesting ideas that are never fully developed. As a character piece, however, the movie is an appealing romp. Emma Thompson makes a feast of her role as a prudish churchwoman with a decidedly deranged facet or two. Jeremy Irons brings an agreeably camp attitude to his work as Lena’s odd, elegant uncle, and as Lena’s sexy cousin Ridley, Emmy Rossum raises the room temperature in every scene she visits. She also adds a dash of romantic rivalry, forcing her unwelcome attentions on Ehrenreich, who is charming as an innocent among eccentrics.
LaGravenese wisely uses the supernatural hokum for anarchic humor. There’s a fine dinner-table spat where Ridley and Lena send the room spinning like a mad merry-go-round (haven’t we all been there?) and the notion of the overbearing adults in a kid’s life being genuinely demonic has a certain snap. The narrative has several momentum-stealing hiccups as Civil War memories from past lives flash back, and there’s a feeling of uneasy truce between the teen romance and adult atmosphere, but for all its reliance on genre conventions, this is one of the more refreshing films in many weeks.