MV5BMTc1ODYzMDk2MV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMTg1Mjk5OA@@._V1._SX640_SY426_ copyBeautiful Creatures, based on the first in a series of YA books by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl, provides just the right amount of romance and adventure to overcome a quite familiar storyline. Featuring breakout performances by virtual unknowns, Alice Englert and Alden Ehrenreich, as well as palpable chemistry between them, the film should satisfy its rabid fan base as well as incorporate many of the now listless Twi-hards.

Yet those not initiated to this Southern Gothic world of Casters and the mortals who love them will also find the film entertaining, if a bit too long. Director Richard LaGravenese coaxes scenery chewing performances from some great veteran actors, and guides the film with an assured hand. Unfortunately, while the talented writer/director and his actors do the most with the YA story, they cannot overcome the fact that it is basically a watered down version of an Anne Rice novel.

Lena Duchannes (Englert) is a witch, or as they’re called in Gatlin, South Carolina, a Caster. As a result of both her bloodline and her gender, she must be forever claimed for either the forces of good or of evil on her 16th birthday. Of course, no one, not her powerful guardians, nor even she can know how this will play out, as her true nature will guide the claiming.

That fact however, doesn’t stop her family, particularly her uncle, Macon Ravenwood, played by Jeremy Irons, from shuttling her around the country in an effort to avoid any evil influence. Temptation is clearly everywhere, but Macon has good reason to remain on the run, as there is much vested interest in the outcome of the powerful young Lena’s claiming.

Sadly for the teen though, all this relocating does is force her to remain an outcast in every town she moves—after all, no one likes the weird new girl in high school. To prepare for her 16th birthday however, Macon and Lena return to Gatlin, the home of both their ancestors and the creepy southern Gothic Ravenwood Mansion that conveniently sits on the outskirts of town. Naturally, this petrifies the God-fearing if podunk residents of the town, and fully aware of the Ravenwood/Duchannes backstory they are quick to turn their children against Lena.

Yet neither her pariah status, nor her frightening Carrie-style telepathic window smashing, can deter the affections of 17-year-old, Ethan Wate. Inheriting an insatiable wanderlust from his deceased mother that allows him to imagine a world beyond close-minded Gatlin, he’s been dreaming of a girl like Lena for months now.

Actually, he’s been dreaming of Lena, which may or may not have something to do with a Civil War curse involving both their families. Though popular in school, and as Lena tells him, “dripping with charm”, he too harbors a loneliness and isolation that only begins to evaporate when he finally meets this complicated young girl.

After a little pursuing, Ethan of course wins Lena over and they fall madly in love amidst the Great Expectations-style splendor of the practically abandoned Ravenwood grounds- quite a contrast to the Tim Burton meets Busby Berkeley set design used for the Mansion’s interior, but perhaps Casters aren’t concerned with continuity in home design. Sadly though, their blossoming love is impeded by the fact that Lena has only days until her sweet, or not so sweet sixteen.

The plot thickens as both Macon, along with Ethan’s guardian, Amma — a librarian who, as played by Viola Davis, has some secrets of her own — struggle to keep the teens apart for their own good. They encounter some resistance from Emma Thompson, as a Bible Thumper, who, whaddya know, has her own dark past, and Emmy Rossum as Lena’s cousin, a cautionary tale of what can happen when a Caster girl is claimed for the dark side.

Bearing a striking resemblance to Rice’s classic literary series, The Witching Hour, the actual plot of the film is certainly nothing Earth shatteringly new. However, the talented LaGravanese ensures that Beautiful Creatures is not your average supernatural teen flick. Demonstrating a keen ear for the natural and often comical way human beings communicate in fine films like The Fisher King and Living Out Loud, he brings the same skill to these characters, peppering the clichéd plot with fresh and funny dialogue that reveals much more about it’s characters than I’m sure was expected.

Working with cinematographer, Philippe Rousselot (A River Runs Through It) LaGravenese gives the film the moody romantic look that its core audience will lap up, but his attention to detail also imbues it with a lush realness that was missing from all the Twilight Films and even the first Hunger Games.  Filmed on location in New Orleans, everything has that Deep South stilted humid torpor that soundstages and green screens just can’t recreate.

No shoddy special effects here as well! Though the climactic storm sequence is predictable it’s still hauntingly beautiful. It’s nice to see that Alcon and Warner Brothers actually invested money into this one instead of just hoping to pedal cheap-looking crap to romance-starved tweens flush with their parents’ cash.

Yet, it’s also clear that LaGravenese is smart enough to recognize that no matter how great the special effects are, the success of this movie will hinge on the chemistry between his two leads. Luckily, there is no shortage of that, and he ably captures every moment of it with a plethora of tight shots, framing his actor’s fresh faces.

Alden Ehrenreich, who resembles a young Rufus Sewell with a Jack Nicholson glint in his eye, is a talent to watch. Having already worked for Francis Ford Coppola twice, and written and developed plays of his own at NYU, this guy’s got his eyes on the prize. Flush with personality and charisma, he ably holds the camera’s focus at all times. Yet he also invests Ethan with real heart and feeling, making the audience understand why this boy just can’t stay away from Lena and the obvious danger she represents.

Newcomer Alice Englert, does not have as strong a resume, but the daughter of director, Jane Champion, clearly demonstrates why she was entrusted with such a big studio film after having only acted in a few indies. Possessing a strikingly angular beauty and muted charm, she aptly conveys Lena’s voracious intelligence as well as her stubborn obstinance through her dark chocolate eyes. Though not yet the actress Mia Wasikowska or Emily Blunt is, she calls to mind many of those two great leading ladies’ best traits, and I get why Ethan digs her.

The seasoned actors, Irons, and Viola Davis, are also reliably superb, but no one seems to be having more fun than Emma Thompson. In a role that requires quite a level of campy over-the-top-ness, she sinks her teeth in and is spellbinding to watch.  I haven’t seen a brilliant actress revel in such a juicy role since Fiona Shaw practically devoured the scenery as Marnie on Season 4 of True Blood. It also helps that LaGravenese gives Thompson some of the best lines in the film, which she of course handles with aplomb.

Also fun is Shameless’s Emmy Rossum, even if her role, like several others in the film, reeks of having deeper shades in the novel that were of course, unable to be revealed in a two hour movie. That being said, this girl has onscreen charisma to spare and needs to be a movie star now! Popping by as well in underdeveloped parts, are the excellent Eileen Atkins and versatile Margo Martindale, looking like extras from The Hunger Games.

Ultimately, the film was pleasantly entertaining, I just wish it had more time to explore some of the great philosophical ideas it brings up. Issues about knowledge versus religion, acceptance versus hate, or most importantly fate vs. free will are all tossed out there, only to have their surfaces skimmed in deference to the central romance plot.  But I understand that you have to give a core audience what they want.

Ironically, Thompson’s character even addresses this very need that young girls have for romantic love above all else, but that point is soon forgotten. In this day and age of Twilight-ian, my-only-power-as-a-girl-is-in-getting-the-right-man-to-notice- and-love-me, it’s sad that the film didn’t make a stronger statement against that limited and programmed line of thinking. In fairness though, The Hunger Games did make that point, but aside from the supernaturally talented Jennifer Lawrence’s performance, it was not nearly the film that Beautiful Creatures is.  Perhaps they’ll rectify this in the sequel!