Sunday, February 17, 2013

Beautiful Creatures

The surprise in filmmaking is without question mostly determined in the how and not the what.  Case in point: Beautiful Creatures, a teen-lit adaptation green-lit under a corporate structure looking for the next Twilight.  The film-- a junky mishmash of Southern Gothic hokum, Jane Austen and teen angst cliches--   is an almost serendipitous delight.  And while graded on the curve of less than encouraging expectations, the quietly clever bits of intelligence, alert wittiness and playfully alive performances transcend this creature, written and directed by Richard LaGravenese and based on the novel by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl, from the moribund of its genre limitations.  It's not a science, nor a spell mysteriously cast, but a certain divinity feels attached to this ripe guilty pleasure.  For a premise that's precisely the inverse of Bella and Edward-- in this incarnation, our attractive star crossed lovers consist of a girl who happens to a witch (or a caster, as less pejoratively referred to) and a mortal boy-- there's an infused charm, rhythm and refined sense of tone.  LaGravenese, the gifted screenwriter of Living Out Loud, The Ref and The Fisher King sets a smooth sense of control over his affable and appealing ensemble cast.  The tone is a nifty, and hard to affect balance just to the left of deathly dull self serious sacrament to the original text and just the right of over-the-top bonkers camp.  The mood, at the films sharpest, has the sublime beats of a catchy pop song.

Set in fictitious Gatin, South Carolina, we first meet high school junior Ethan Wate (Alden Ehrenreich), a small time dreamer who yearns to leave his nothing town and existence.  He's a affable, aw-shucks, boy next door type with a puppy dog demeanor, which belie a literary intelligence and sneaky yen for adventure.  He finds one in Lena (Alice Englert), the dark beauty of a transfer student with a strange and mysterious backstory.  Ethan is smitten instantly, first by the duly equipped quips she drops on the pious Mean Girls who mock her lineage-- Lena is the troubled niece of the frowned upon Ravenwood clan, a family of seemingly Satanic nature that founded the hamlet town known for its erratic shifts in dramatic weather condition-- and further taken by her hard to get teasing of intrigue.  The best asset from the admittedly heavy bits of exposition (this is of course a manufactured labor in a potential franchise) is LaGravenese's gift with dialogue and the appeal of its leading players who finesse the recycled cheese in the corn with an affectionate rapport, building a romance that's easy to root for and doesn't get too bogged down in the semantics of teen-lit genre workmanship.

The central conflict hinges upon Lena's upcoming sixteenth birthday-- a caster ritual in which she is either claimed by the light or dark force, as judged by her nature.  So naturally, her guardian and uncle, the plutocrat caster Macon Ravenwood (played by flowery but restrained Jeremy Irons) is restraint to the budding romance developing between Lena and Ethan.  Lena, herself, is in her own adolescent muck, unsure of her fate and sometimes of out of control with her powers-- she shatters the windows of a high school class when things get unruly on a dark day, and does some testy things with mother Earth in her fog of (super) natural emotions.  There's even more at stake as a curse dating back to the Civil War besieges her and budding love for Ethan, as well as the familial pressures put upon by her dark mother Seraphine (a delicious Emma Thompson) and cousin Ridley (Emmy Rossum; a dark hussy caster.)  Somehow, inexplicably LaGravenese holds all of this together, partially due to the very natural and relaxed chemistry between Ehrenreich and Englert.  Both warm and engaging fresh talents, they transcend above the expected vacant stares and brood of the Bellas and Edwards that proceeded them, and prove separately and together an alluring couple.  Enrenreich plays Ethan as a cross between a jock and a nerd, but feels more akin to modern day Mr. Darcy, while Englert (daughter of director Jane Campion) teases the allure of provocation mashed with a goth high school princess-- both, I believe, have bright futures ahead of them.

The impressive ensemble cast includes Viola Davis as the Gatin librarian, and guardian to Ethan after the passing of his mother, who posits a deeper relationships the casters, and great talents like Margo Martindale and Eileen Atkins as Lena's extended family.  The esteemed company the surrounds the young lovers grounds Beautiful Creatures in a way, adding a thin layer of gravitas, as well a sliver of joy in watching some of the greats devour the scenery with aplomb-- Thompson, in particular, has a devilishly fun and revealing scene midway through, one that in all it's silliness and whatsits connection to the convoluted tale, revels in a master cheerfully enjoying herself.  And that's more of the extended, if slight, joy of the feature itself, that in the midst of its genre, by-the-numbers nonsense, there's a tender and goofy charm wagging its tail throughout. 

And while Beautiful Creatures is a junk food story, is a bit too long, and was made with clearly by-the-cheap visual mechanics, I found it difficult to dismiss this light and confectionery young adult soap opera because it features a sly and warm little heart.  On top of this, there must be some further achievement for a film of this nature to not only credible quote Charles Bukowski, but also slyly reference Kurt Vonnegut, To Kill a Mockingbird and in a killer millisecond of celluloid render a lovely homage to the great Rita Hayworth film Gilda, of which not a single hum would be uttered by members of tween set.  It's choice marks like this that make this creature hopefully a more alluring find as it drifts as an anecdote to the doldrums on basic cable someday.  B+

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