The supernatural-themed, teen-targeted movie Beautiful Creatures is being marketed as the new Twilight. This is a mistake on multiple levels. First, for movie critics, this is like being told a new sort of hemorrhoid is headed their way. But more important, it does a disservice to the movie: it turns out writer/director Richard LaGravenese’s adaptation of the young-adult fantasy series by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl, is actually quite good.
But such comparisons are not entirely unexpected, given that Beautiful Creatures tells the tale of (yet another) young mortal who pursues a forbidden love with a powerful teenaged supernatural being. Only this time, it is the girl who has great powers. Lena Duchannes (Alice Englert) is a witch, or in this narrative’s parlance, a “caster,” Her soulmate is high school junior Ethan Wate (Alden Ehrenreich). We learn that Ethan’s recently widowed father refuses to leave his bedroom, leaving Ethan to shop for groceries, cook their meals and plow through the novels of Kurt Vonnegut on his lonesome. The town librarian (Viola Davis) is the only adult who seems to be looking out for him. Ethan suffers from insomnia and takes long midnight runs through his small South Carolina town, where the residents live for the annual Civil War enactment. “Like it’s going to turn out different” Ethan says in voice-over narration. He’s sharp and charming. When he does sleep, his dreams are filled with a beautiful raven-haired girl.
That girl, of course, would be Lena-turning up in his high school history class shortly thereafter. She’s come to live with her uncle Macon Ravenwood (Jeremy Irons) regarded as something of a scary recluse. Her parents are dead (“fire” she explains tersely), and she’s been passed from one relative to another. She’s come to live with her Uncle Macon for protection; with her 16th birthday fast approaching, she’ll be claimed by one of the opposing forces of the witch, or “caster” world, light or dark, in a rite of passage that parallels mortal adolescence. Local rumors have it that the Ravenwoods are Satanists, naturally, the Bible-thumping high-school girls are horrible to her. After her first miserable day of school Ethan rescues her in the rain and gives her a lift home. He tries to relate to her by talking about Titanic (one of many pop culture references LaGravenese incorporates adroitly). She’s never seen it and opens her copy of Charles Bukowski’s You Get So Alone at Times That It Just Makes Sense. “He any good?” he asks. “Define good,” she says with a smirk. He’s mesmerized.
And well he should be. Englert, the daughter of director Jane Campion (The Piano) and film-crew veteran Colin Englert, is radiantly beautiful. But more than that, she’s interesting, a young actress who presents as an old soul. There’s something hauntingly familiar about her–a curious trait, as her mother is resolutely a behind-the-camera person. When I saw Englert in Sally Potter’s Ginger & Rosa (slated for a March release) I thought she was a dead ringer for Emily Blunt. In Beautiful Creatures she reminded me alternately of Blunt, Debra Winger, a young Demi Moore; and in terms of tone of voice and confidence, Jennifer Lawrence. Perhaps the worst that can be said of her performance is that her Southern accent goes in and out. The chemistry between her and the appealing Ehrenreich is strong and sweet. He (and Dennis Quaid) have that rarest kind of “aw shucks” smile, the kind that actually them more likeable.
(READ: TIME’S Richard Corliss on Jane Campion’s The Piano)
There are a lot of witchy special effects in Beautiful Creatures, including glimpses of a cursed Civil War-era witch-mortal couple with parallels to Lena and Ethan, an apocalyptic storm that swirls over the town’s hallowed Civic War battleground, and some “caster’s combat” between Lena and a cousin (Emmy Rossum) that involves a nauseating spinning dining room table. None of these did nearly as much for me as the sight of Irons, all silky Southern menace, acting opposite Davis (who ends up playing Giles to Lena’s Buffy, for all you Vampire Slayer fans) or squaring off against Emma Thompson. She plays the town’s chief religious zealot, who leads the charge to have Lena banned from the high school. Due to some supernatural interference, Thompson gets to display a second, very different side. She treats this teen movie like an acting vacation, seething and primping and relishing every second. It’s she who delivers the movie’s most interesting message. “Love is a spell humans created to give females something to play with instead of power.” Garcia and Stohl have written four books about these witches–if this movie spawns any sequels, maybe we’ll see more of that viewpoint. I hope it does; Beautiful Creatures is good fun and I want to know what happens next for Lena the teenaged witch.
(READ: TIME’S Q&A with Jeremy Irons)