He’s a teenager from small town South Carolina. He reads Vonnegut and Burroughs and eventually Bukowski (ugh). He sings along to his big old car’s radio as vintage Dylan plays. He knows his life will be fine once he leaves his confining hometown. He grins and falls in love easily and then is so tense he seems always to be perspiring while still grinning.
He’s Ethan, the lead character in the latest movie to be titled “Beautiful Creatures.” He is played by Alden Ehrenreich, an odd actor to lead a cast that includes Jeremy Irons and Emma Thompson. But without him, “BC” would be an ordinary sort of movie about a crisis in the secret world of witches—or “casters” as the film calls them.
Leave out Ethan and we have a fifteen-year-old witch, Lena (Alice Englert) who comes to this little town her ancestors founded to get through her coming-of-age birthday. This is the birthday on which she will get vast powers, astonishing even by witch standards, and the one on which her “nature” will be determined to be either “good” or “evil.”
Her relations get into a tug of war over her. Her uncle, Macon Ravenswood (Irons), tries to keep her away from a danger that is never clear. He lives in a magic stage set that looks on the outside like a decrepit Southern mansion. One day Lena’s evil cousin shows up, displaying her skills as a dangerous siren. And Lena’s missing, deceased mother keeps taking over the body of a local Bible thumping woman (Thompson) to put in pitches for Lena’s orientation toward the dark-side.
The mortals in town are doing cartoon gymnastics over their concern about the enrollment in their high school of a girl from the local family they associate with sorcery. Still, stubborn Ethan falls for Lena, and she for him, and their only real confidant (after her cousin takes possession of his chum Linc) is Emma (Viola Davis).
This decoratively-branded old friend of Ethan’s late mother is the local librarian. She lets the kids into a secret reading room where Macon has already perused all the books associated with witchery. But the two spend weeks there, apparently. And in that time, Lena discovers the way to make certain her adult nature is “good.” But it isn’t a very happy discovery.
Further complicating the story is business about dreams Ethan has. He dreams of a Confederate army soldier who is shot and killed near the local battlefield. A young woman runs to him as he falls. Oh, and then there are the shows of nature’s power—regular lightning strikes in an area field, a burst of wind that blows out every window in a high school classroom, rain storms that only wet on character (remember Joe Btfsplk in the Lil Abner strip?), and a bulbous thunderhead on the day the Civil War battle is re-enacted.
The dreams are apparently visions of the history of Ethan and Lena’s ancestors. The bad weather is evidence of the power of Lena’s coming maturity. One admires the script, by director Richard LaGraveneser (who also wrote Water for Elephants and The Fisher King) for explaining its complicated scheme well enough. But, then, the point of view gets to drifting away from Ethan, and this is not good construction.
Still, “Beautiful Creatures” makes its story new, at least in part by turning its actors loose. Davis is almost unrecognizable. Irons has an entirely new voice for his part. The young women are very effective.
And then there’s Ethan at the story’s center. Ehrenreich is not matinee idol. But then, by the time we get to the surprising reversals at the end of the story, maybe he is the essential good ingredient.