I guess that I, I just thought,
Maybe we could find new ways to fall apart.
— Fun, “We are Young”
“It’s been the same dream every night for three months,” laments the significantly named high schooler Ethan Wate (Alden Ehrenreich). And so you see: repeated images of a gothish sort of girl, dressed in black, her long hair tangled over her face, which, he points out, he can never see clearly. The dream always ends badly, he adds, which is to say, “I die.”
For those who’ve heard that Beautiful Creatures has designs on the Twi crowd, these two words might sound promising, an indication that Ethan’s a bit of a twist on the usual pretty human boyfriend. He is, sort of, but not that kind of twist. Rather, he’s a dreamer and a reader (he prefers Kurt Vonnegut and Henry Miller and when he discovers Charles Bukowski, he’s utterly, quite adorably smitten), born and raised in teeny Gatlin, South Carolina. Ethan wants out, and so he wonders whether his nocturnal object of desire, who naturally turns out to be the new girl in town, Lena Duchannes (Alice Englert), might be a means to that end.
This is actually the good part of Beautiful Creatures, that Ethan is Bella. Better, he’s Bella with a mind of his own, funny and clever and sweet too. So too, as his Edward, Lena brings angst that’s less sparkly, more hormonal, more convincingly confused. She’s a witch — here called a caster — ensconced in a family of witches, and she’s got all kinds of powers to do things, like, um, break windows, spin dining room tables, and call up rainstorms (all things rendered in distractingly bad FX). If you’re feeling at all pummeled by the recent franchising of magical boys who sweep girls off their feet with an awkwardly bold manner or romantic pallor, it’s refreshing to see a boy be swept and a girl burdened with the choice of introducing him into her difficult, dangerous, infinitely vexed situation.
Alas, this perverse dynamic lasts for just a couple of minutes in Beautiful Creatures. Based on the first in the five-book series by Kami Garcia, this aspiring franchise-starter only brings together the strange and fated couple (they’re actually in each other’s dreams) in order to make familiar and fated. Each has a protector not quite up to the job, Lena a cadaverous, exotic Uncle Macon (Jeremy Irons) and Ethan a passionate, wise housemaid Amma (Viola Davis), than it sets to reasserting conventional gender roles, wherein the girl, as powerful as she may be, might still use a rescue, and the boy, as charmingly neurasthenic as he may appear, is actually a more typically solid citizen, possessed of admirable loyalty and strength he knows not yet.
He displays this bit of grit early on, when his ex-girlfriend Emily (Zoey Deutch) — a mean girl who’s evangelical too — determines to restart their relationship for senior year. She’s in place primarily to make Lena’s witchy powers seem righteous, or at least a mounted in self-defense, Carrie-style. This righteousness works something like the Cullens’ forest-animal-killing version of vampirism: it’s not precisely good, but it’s necessary. Maybe.
Ethan’s decision to take up with Lena despite Emily’s epic disapproval makes him seem less courageous than sensible, while making the whole witchcrafty business more palatable. That’s not to say that being a caster doesn’t come with problems, say, free choice. For to make Lena less powerful, the movie makes her transition at age 16 something of a nightmare, and her control of her powers uncertain. This plot point goes so far as to dump her into a process called The Claiming, by which the light or the dark side will take her (and yes, the sides are so very mundane as to be called light and dark). Though Macon, who’s a man witch with some unexplained extra-specialness, can keep his own darkness at bay, girls are less able to make their own choices (isn’t it always the way?). To make the stakes seem piled high against her, Lena has a dark-sider mom, Seraphine (Emma Thompson), who rolls into town by borrowing the body of Bible-thumping Mrs. Lincoln, whose church lady’s taste in outfits grants Seraphine numerous chances to complain, elaborately and rather wittily.
Seraphine’s outsized charms are supposed to be secondary to the kids’ romance, which lurches quickly from initial doubts and mildly amusing wordplay to utter devotion and repetitive pledges. No matter that Macon recognizes Seraphine is “using the boy” to engineer her plans for Lena, or that Amma cautions Ethan to watch out for this strange girl about whom she knows more than she’s saying. By now, it can’t surprise you to learn that Amma is not only a wondrous housekeeper and the town’s librarian, but also has mystical access to spirits and spells, a conjure woman looking after the white boy in her charge (his mom is dead and his dad so emotionally damaged that he literally never emerges from his bedroom: this would be Ethan’s immediate male role model). Needless to say, Macon and Amma’s warnings have the opposite of their intended effects.
Or not. While the film sets up the usual distinctions between classes and genders, beliefs and backgrounds, its appeal is based on another essential split, the one between kids and the adults who will never understand them. In teen-romance-world, adults always get it wrong, they misunderstand or they forget what “it means” to be young, they’re preoccupied with rules or appearances, and oh yes, they’re old. It’s better, in the YA franchise world, always, to be young.