It's easy to approach Beautiful Creatures as a cynical attempt to cash in on the teen fad of semi-gothic, worlds-collide, fish-out-of-water literature. But the movie has its own little heart beat and turns out to be more entertaining than it has the right to be.
Much of that can be attributed to the grounded quality added by such wry actors as Jeremy Irons, Viola Davis and scenery-chewing Emma Thompson.
For all of the fake southern accents and glib quoting of "banned" writers, and the 20-somehting actors playing 16 year olds, the story redeems itself with notions of integrity and self-sacrifice.
The movie starts with the narration of high school junior Ethan Wate (Alden Ehrenreich), who's starting a new year at school just months after the death of his mother. His mourning father is a nonentity, and he is basically looked after by family friend Amma (Viola Davis), the town librarian.
Ethan longs for the day he can get out of this backward southern town and go to any college as long as it's at least 1,000 miles away. The town and the school are hyper-religious in a way you see only in teen flicks like this. While preaching against anything that seems different, they are the ones that come across as a cult.
Ethan, meanwhile, when not haunted by dreams of a dark-haired girl and his own death, spends most of his free time reading books that have been banned by the school board. Even the English teacher's attempt to introduce "To Kill a Mockingbird" causes a controversy in class.
But that is nothing compared to what is stirred up by the sudden entrance of 15-year-old Lena Duchannes (Alice Englert), a pale, quiet girl with dark hair, who is the center of scads of rumors - even a guy's death. An orphan, she has come to live with her rich uncle Macon Ravenwood (Jeremy Irons).
Naturally, Ethan is immediately attracted to her while she tries to put him off. He trails her to her uncle's morose-looking plantation home, which is moldy and decrepit on the outside and ultra-modern inside. The film does score on set decoration.
Lena and Ethan connect over literature. She collects poetry and introduces him to Charles Bukowski. He shares his favorites with her. As played by relative newcomer Ehrenreich, Ethan is not a moody loner and is as likely to get giggly when flirting as any real teenager. Lena is a loner because of the rumors and because she does have a secret.
Her family are all witches, or "casters" as they prefer to be called. When she turns 16, she will be "claimed" for either light or dark. She is dreadfully afraid it will be evil. Her cousin Ridley (Emmy Rossum) has already gone evil, and her mother - look out. Her odd uncle Macon, who is passing himself off as both a southern gentleman and a "light" caster, is doing what he can to push her toward the good, too.
Lena believes, with good reason, that if she becomes an evil caster a family curse will come into play and she will kill the one she loves. That would be Ethan. Amma (who has secrets of her own) tries to help Lena and Ethan find a counter to the curse before it's too late.
Lena's 16th birthday coincides with a Civil War battle that is re-enacted in the town every year. All of the kids in the history class are expected to participate. Of course, that sets up a very stormy climax as the casters battle for Lena's soul, and Lena makes a heart-wrenching decision.
Beautiful Creatures is based on a series of teen novels by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl. This film has its endearing moments but does not seem strong enough to sustain a series in the fashion of Harry Potter or Twilight, to which it is compared. It is not as enchanting as the former was when at its best, but Beautiful Creatures is far more entertaining and literate overall than the latter was.