By Susan JAMES
Hollywood abhors a vacuum and with the conclusion of both the Harry Potter and the Twilight series, studios are scrambling to corral the millions of fans who flocked to those films and the millions of dollars they brought with them. The latest entrant in the teenaged, light-versus-dark fantasy sweepstakes is director Richard LaGravenese’s film, “Beautiful Creatures.” Based on a book for young adults by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl, both film and book are the first installments in a planned series called the Caster Chronicles.
Casters, more commonly known as witches, live among mortals but aren’t particularly happy about it. As with so many groups of super-beings (“X-Men” springs to mind), they have to hide who they really are and for the most part despise the humans who treat them like freaks. A small country town in South Carolina, born full fledged from the head of “To Kill A Mockingbird,” is home to a major player in the Caster community, one Macon Ravenwood, played by Jeremy Irons. Macon is overseeing his recently arrived niece Lena, who is approaching her 16th birthday. For female casters, this is the moment when they are claimed by either the dark or the light. And although male casters seem to have some say over the matter, females, in a weird retro sexist kind of way, do not.
Mooning around the town, just counting the years until he can leave, is 16-year-old mortal Ethan Wate whose late mother was once the object of Macon Ravenwood’s affections. Both Lena and Ethan have been having dreams about the other and when they finally meet in class for the first time, you just know, in a me Romeo, you Juliet moment, that it was meant to be. Is love greater than the forces of darkness arrayed against Lena’s push toward the light? Do you really need to ask?
Two unknowns, Alice Englert and Alden Ehrenreich, play Lena and Ethan with an appealing, we’ll-get-through-this-together commitment. The problem is that neither of them looks like a young teen nor do any of their classmates who seem to have dropped in from auditions for a remake of “Clueless.” Most peculiar of all is the casting of brilliant British actors Jeremy Irons, Emma Thompson and Eileen Atkins as quintessential Carolinians. Listening to those crisp English vowels try and swim through a sea of Southern syrup is at first distracting and finally a fascinating exploration of “I think I can.” The superbly sophisticated Thompson, doing her impression of Scarlett O’Hara simpering at the Twelve Oaks barbecue, rings particularly off-key. Fortunately, Viola Davis looks quite at home as Amma, the local seer, and the state of Louisiana does a stellar South Carolina impression. The scenery with its arthritic trees, ruined plantations and dripping Spanish moss becomes a primary player in the drama.
Dealing from a deck of fantasy staples, star-crossed lovers, timeless curses, mean-minded humans, fateful choices to defy or embrace the Force, and a powerful Merlin/Yoda/Gandalf/Dumbledore figure willing to sacrifice all for the disciple under his protection, “Beautiful Creatures” manages despite all the odds to weave an entertaining if not completely original spell.
‘Imperio!’ frail mortals and see you at the movies!