If we must have supernatural high-school romances, can they all be as relatively painless as Beautiful Creatures? Based on a popular teen-lit series, this YA adaptation works modest magic with a plot only slightly less silly than Twilight’s. Tetro star Alden Ehrenreich plays a South Carolina charmer drawn to raven-haired wallflower Lena (Sydney-born Alice Englert), who lives in an art deco mansion seemingly designed by Tim Burton. To the boy’s curiously muted surprise, his dream girl is a “caster” – the youngest in a family of aristocratic sorcerers. On her rapidly approaching 16th birthday, Lena will be claimed for either the Lightness or the Darkness. Will she be virtuous like her snobby warlock father (Jeremy Irons) or go diabolical like her sports-car-driving cousin (Emmy Rossum)? If only she had a say in the matter.
While it’s nice to see the Edward-Bella dynamic flipped, with the superpowers granted to the woman, no one’s going to mistake Beautiful Creatures for a feminist manifesto. (Gender-studies majors could have a field day with the mythology, which denies only females the ability to choose sides and codes the evil converts as hormonal bitches.) The dialogue, though, has a Whedon-ish pop and snap. Better still is the acting, with director Richard LaGravenese (PS I Love You) coaxing lively turns from Irons, Rossum and especially Emma Thompson, whose wicked witch of the South delivers a juicy, it’s-good-to-be-bad monologue. Most refreshing is the film’s gentle endorsement of literacy: the two lovers bond over banned classics, while Lena finds enlightenment in a library and magically wallpapers her bedroom with lines of poetry. Any franchise that encourages young readers to graduate from Stephenie Meyer to Charles Bukowski is OK in our book.