Dave's Rating:

3.5

Building a better Twilight

Once, when I was 16, the assistant youth minister at my Baptist church told me I should stop reading The Catcher in the Rye because it was "ungodly." At that point in my bookish adolescent snottiness I decided that not only was I absolutely going to finish it, but I also needed to seek out all the other banned and controversial books I could find. Of course, now that I'm a thousand years old I don't need a similarly rebellious, book-starved, teenage movie protagonist like Ethan Wate (Alden Ehrenreich) to validate my experience, but it's good that the movies throw a bone to the underrepresented minority of grumpy adolescent readers every once in a blue moon.

Ethan lives in a sleepy Southern town full of self-righteous know-nothings ("a town of buttermilk minds" declares writer-director Richard LaGravanese's script, an apparently very loose adaptation of Margaret Stohl and Kami Garcia's novel) where he consumes forbidden books like Slaughterhouse-Five, Tropic of Cancer and Howl. He's bored and he wants out as soon as possible, but not before he gets to know the intriguingly odd new girl in school, the Charles Bukowski-reading Lena Duchannes (Alice Englert). Lena lives with her even odder uncle (Jeffery Irons, wearing brocaded capes and hamming it up like a boss) in a creepy old mansion and everyone in town thinks they're witches. They are.

In fact, Lena is about to learn if she's to become a good witch or a bad witch, a fate that may not be in her own hands thanks to a curse that's got her supernaturally tied up in knots. Her bad cousin (Emmy Rossum, wearing a succession of insane Cher-meets-Maleficent get-ups) and badder mother Sarafine (Emma Thompson, currently possessing the body of the churchiest Church Lady in town) beckon her to the dark. But Lena's uncle and a wild collection of character actor relatives (including British stage legend Eileen Atkins and Margo Martindale, holding a live peacock) will do everything they can to save her from that fate, even if it means interfering with the budding makeout sessions she's got going with Ethan.

If it sounds too post-Twilight for you, you're right. Star-crossed kids, one mortal and one not, an emphasis on outlandish obstacle, played for both maximum angst and total silliness, it fits that formula. But also not. Its staggeringly popular predecessor was ultimately about a kind of cloistering chastity and obedience, a critique echoed when Thompson's Sarafine spits, "Love was created to give females something to play with instead of power." For a goofy -- and occasionally flat-out confusing -- pop culture product aimed at the same audience, Beautiful Creatures is much weirder, cooler and knowing, more in league with something like The Perks of Being a Wallflower than anything Stephenie Meyer will ever create. It doesn't aim higher; it aims in several competing, uncharted directions.

Just don't let the empty, muddled, what's-this-thing-about-again? trailer fool you. It feels like the kind of marketing campaign meant to hide the story's strangeness when it should rightfully be using that stuff to beckon its intended audience. You know who you are. And when you leave the theater you should go find something by Bukowski, no matter what any adult tells you, because that guy was one of the last century's most amazing literary alcoholics. You'll learn a lot of crazy stuff from him. If you get nothing else from watching this movie then that's the takeaway that really ought to stick.

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