There is no Starbucks in sleepy Gatlin, S.C., laments young Ethan Wate, so it's completely understandable that he wants out. High school is a drag, too, and the sole movie theater can't even get the titles right on its marquee.
But then Lena Duchannes, glamorously Goth, moves into town, and Ethan's world is upended. It's as if a spell has been cast, which, in the over-the-top supernatural teen romance Beautiful Creatures, isn't that surprising. After all, Lena (Alice Englert) is a "Caster," a.k.a. a witch, and although she cottons to Ethan (Alden Ehrenreich) and his poetry-quoting ways (Charles Bukowski, anyone?), she knows that getting involved with a mortal isn't a good idea. Especially since she's about to turn 16, when a Caster has to be "claimed" for either Light or Dark. Glinda, or the Wicked Witch of the West?
Written and directed by Richard LaGravenese, adapting the first book in the Caster Chronicles young adult series by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl, Beautiful Creatures tries terribly hard to establish its own mythology of magic and witchcraft and Southern-fried adolescent angst. This isn't Hogwarts, though, and it's not even Forks High from Twilight, but boy, you know Warner Bros., the studio behind Beautiful Creatures, wants it to be! Another franchise about outcast kids with special powers, about young love, about Team Ethan vs. Team, ummm - well, there isn't really another team yet.
But as handsome a couple as Ehrenreich and Englert make, they are not Pattinson and Stewart, or Radcliffe and Watson. There's no "star" thing happening here, although Englert, with her dark hair and dark airs, does a convincing mope, and Ehrenreich, as the sensitive writer-to-be, drawls out a bunch of talismanic literary references (Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five, Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, the aforementioned Bukowski) with punch and panache.
As for that "claiming" and the possibility of turning to the dark side, Beautiful Creatures trots out a va-va-va-voom-y Emmy Rossum, all cleavage and eyeliner, as Ridley Duchannes, Lena's cousin, and Emma Thompson as Sarafine, Lena's undead but nonetheless unperturbed mom. Both are definitely dark, delivering sorcery incantations and sneering contemptuously at the pitiful humans around them.
Viola Davis is the resident shaman, and also the town's librarian, so she knows her way around a spell and a curse, plus she can issue fines if you return your book after it's due.
Playing Lena's uncle, Macon Ravenwood, holed up in a vine-tangled mansion with a grand staircase that belongs in a Busby Berkeley musical, is none other than Jeremy Irons. The British actor deploys a southern accent of sorts, bringing his flamboyantly consumptive mannerisms to bear on the proceedings.
And the proceedings are colorful, and cornball, and full of trippy special effects - stormy skies, spinning tables, Civil War reenactors. Bible-thumping townies are in a tizzy over the satanic goings-on over at Ravenwood Manor, while Ethan and Lena struggle mightily to hold onto their love, despite all the manipulation and magic going against them. Ethan had seen Lena in his dreams long before she came to Gatlin. He knows they're destined to be together.
If only all these people with the creepy glowing eyes and diabolical hugger-mugger weren't trying to lure her over to the dark side. Or the dark roast.