Southern goth-chic gets a swoony supernatural makeover in “Beautiful Creatures,” a teen franchise-starter that suggests what “Twilight” might have looked like with a reasonable budget, a competent script and halfway-decent special effects, but still saddled with next-best source material. Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl’s book, the first of four, reps a calculated synthesis of proven YA-lit elements and recent publishing success tactics, which makes for ingratiating storytelling on the page. Fortunately, writer-director Richard LaGravenese has jettisoned most of the novel and refashioned its core mythology and characters into a feverishly enjoyable guilty pleasure, unapologetic in its mass-market rebel ‘tude.
Though “Beautiful Creatures” has what it takes to support a series — a “gifted” girl, a smitten guy and powerful evil forces determined to keep them apart — the film could face trouble winning over cynical young auds who view it as the latest shameless attempt to cash in on the fantasy craze, which of course it is. And yet, now that the “Twilight” and Harry Potter series have run their course, the timing seems right for a soapy romance in which a sensitive small-town hunk (Alden Ehrenreich) falls hard for the new girl in town, not really minding that she’s a witch — or “caster,” as they prefer to be called here.
With a dark-haired, pale-skinned look more likely to inspire 1920s audiences than today’s supermodel-obsessed tastes, Alice Englert (“Ginger and Rosa”) brings a refreshingly relatable quality to the role of 15-year-old Lena Duchannes, who’s moved to dead-end Gatlin, S.C., after things got out of control at her last school. Lena wants to keep a low profile while counting down the days until her 16th birthday, when a family curse predicts she will be “claimed” as a dark witch, but Ethan recognizes her as the mysterious girl he’s been dreaming about for months, and insists on getting to know this melancholy stranger.
The best young-adult offerings tap into deeper themes that resonate with teens, but this one trades mostly in dopey wish fulfillment, granting magical powers and a devoted admirer to girls who imagine themselves as outsiders. It’s about feeling different, having a secret and discovering that special soulmate in whom one can confide. With his heavy brow knit in an expression of deep concern, Ehrenreich looks the way a young Orson Welles might if cast on a CW series, with a plucky Southern accent in place of a sonorous radio voice.
Though the film preserves the idea of Ethan as narrator, it ditches the novel’s off-puttingly snide tone, allowing the popular girls — led by self-righteous ex-g.f. Emily (Zoey Deutch) — to damn themselves, while saving the amusing putdowns for Gatlin. Nearly everything about the book has been streamlined for the screen, which may rankle fans (who are likely to miss the ethereal song that binds Ethan to Lena, at least), but it makes for a far cleaner plot.
While Lena spices up a traditional teen courtship with doses of magic — as when she caps a date by conjuring snow out of thin air on a muggy December afternoon — her powerful dark relatives (a vampy cousin played by Emmy Rossum and shape-shifting undead mom Sarafine, played with lip-smacking relish by Emma Thompson) arrive to demonstrate what happens when witches go bad. The film goes out of its way to forge memorable character introductions, which will serve the series well, should sequels follow (more confusing is a scene toward the end when Ethan, a sophomore in the book, is shown leaving for NYU).
By granting LaGravenese the freedom to refashion the novel as he sees fit, Warner Bros. gives “Beautiful Creatures” an edge over other recent hit fantasy-series adaptations, which have often shown stiff, gospel-like fidelity to their source material. By contrast, this project comes across as downright blasphemous — and not only against the potboiler that inspired it; LaGravenese’s script takes on Bible-beaters, book-banners and all who invoke God to justify small-minded prejudice. In one particularly campy scene, Sarafine goes head-to-head with Lena’s guardian (Jeremy Irons, the picture of drawling Old South gentility) in the local church, dabbing holy water behind her ears like perfume as she dismisses the superstitious townsfolk’s notions of religion.
Considering how little it takes to get certain groups riled up about what their kids are reading, the film goes awfully far out of its way to align itself with blacklisted literature, offering up Viola Davis’ voodoo “seer” (and resident librarian) as its high priestess. Garcia and Stohl clearly saw “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Catcher in the Rye” as models for the series, although “Beautiful Creatures” demonstrates few of their insights into human nature, hewing closer to Judy Blume and “Twilight” fan fiction. Likewise, while Ethan and Lena turn one another onto Vonnegut and Bukowski, throwing their names around for punk credibility, either writer would surely recoil to see himself quoted in this context.
The film ultimately plays like so much teenage girl poetry, heavy on the angst, endearingly naive in its notions of love and yet brought vividly to life by a game cast, evocative locations (both indoors and out) and stunning anamorphic lensing. Louisiana works nicely for Civil War-obsessed Gatlin, suggesting a tween-friendly “True Blood.”