Three and a half stars
Starring: Alden Ehrenreich, Alice Englert, Viola Davis, Jeremy Irons, Emma Thompson
Directed by: Richard LaGravenese
Running time: 124 minutes
Parental advisory: Not recommended for young children, frightening scenes
Playing at: Banque Scotia, Cavendish, Cinéma Carnaval, Colossus, Côte des Neiges, Kirkland, Lacordaire, LaSalle, Marché Central, Sources, Sphèretech, Taschereau cinemas
There are two things that redeem Beautiful Creatures from the fetid slop pile of supernatural teen romance.
The first is that quiet edge of subversion afforded by a fantasy premise: Key human beliefs such as faith, free will and true love can be ridiculed by non-mortals as absurd, which is always fun.
The second thing that makes Beautiful Creatures more than a southern gothic take on Twilight is the presence of two towering talents: Emma Thompson and Jeremy Irons. Though they're really just supporting players to the two pretty, young leads - Alden Ehrenreich and Alice Englert - these two British thespians sink their bicuspids into the material with such a firm bite, they draw credible dramatic blood.
And for a movie that tells the story of a cute young jock who falls for a brooding teen witch, one can't underrate the value of anything credible because so much of what we see is insane.
Based on the novel by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl, the tale unfolds against the backdrop of Gatlin County. Located in the heart of the South Carolina, and home to the Civil War site Honey Hill, Gatlin County is the kind of place time forgot.
"People don't leave Gatlin," says Ethan Wate (Ehrenreich) in the opening voiceover, suggesting the central challenge of stasis.
The problem is complacency and safety: Ethan's life is pretty easy. The prettiest girl in school likes him. He's got good friends and a loyal and compassionate caregiver with a holy aura named Amma (Viola Davis).
But Ethan has trouble sleeping: He keeps dreaming of a dark-haired beauty that eludes his grasp. He draws pictures of his mystery love, and then, out of nowhere, she appears in the flesh as a new member of his class.
Lena Duchannes (Englert) lives in Ravenwood Manor - long-rumoured to be a residence of Satan and his minions thanks to centuries of post-Civil war lore.
With her long black tangle of curly hair, Lena is ostracized by the pink lip-gloss blonds who see her as a freak show unworthy of the cutest boy in school.
Fortunately, Ethan is a smart kid with natural charms who isn't a slave to public opinion.
Director Richard LaGravenese (Freedom Writers, Living Out Loud) handles the courtship with a gentle touch, ensuring the kids find full dimension within the constraints of expectation.
Ethan is predictably cute, but he's never fully heroic. He's allowed to be a regular guy who talks about regular guy things, and the same thing goes for Lena - who has to play up her looming temper for plot purposes, but remains a believable teen character. It's only when the movie takes its supernatural turn that things get a little more untenable, but a whole lot more entertaining.
Because LaGravenese is committed to finding the most human twists and turns, Beautiful Creatures always feels grounded in our world, even when it's roaming around in romantic fantasy.
Though it's still a shade too long at two hours, and features yet another saintly African-American with soothsaying powers, Beautiful Creatures understood what it had to do, and what it had to be, to cast the right spell on its target audience of hormone-besieged teens.