It seems almost quaint that there was a time when young lovers in the movies could be kept apart simply because one of them came from the wrong side of the tracks, practiced a different religion or, even though the town strictly forbade it, couldn’t stop dancing to Kenny Loggins music.
These days, at least one of them needs to be a vampire, werewolf or zombie.
Or, in the case of “Beautiful Creatures,” a Caster — which is pretty much the same as a witch, only with more red tape.
Based on the series of young-adult novels, “Beautiful Creatures” treads some pretty familiar ground with its Civil War flashbacks and morose teens living in a sleepy, Southern town.
Of all the supernatural romances out there, it feels most like “The Vampire Diaries” with twangs instead of fangs.
But at least “Beautiful Creatures” has a sense of humor, the lovesick mortal is a guy for a change and — hallelujah! — there’s not a love triangle in sight.
Seventeen-year-old Ethan Wate (Alden Ehrenreich) has spent his entire life in tiny Gatlin, S.C., where the library has “more banned books than books to read,” dreaming of something more.
Lately, though, most of those dreams have been about a mysterious young woman, standing in a field, whose face he can never quite see.
Then Lena Duchannes (Alice Englert) moves to town, setting all of Gatlin abuzz.
She’s the niece of the spooky, rarely seen Macon “Old Man” Ravenwood (a dapper Jeremy Irons), which by itself is enough to make the popular girls shun her. “She looks like Death eatin’ a cracker,” one of them hisses.
It’s also enough to make repressed town busybody Mrs. Lincoln (Emma Thompson) lead a crusade to have Lena and her “seductive quirkiness” kicked out of school. After all, Gatlin is so conservative, praying for each other’s souls should be a varsity sport.
Ethan, though, isn’t fazed. Lena’s the most interesting thing to happen to Gatlin in decades. He reads Vonnegut; she’s into Bukowski. And — spoiler alert! — it turns out she’s been dreaming of him, too.
Unlike the heroines of similar tales, Lena has every reason to be sullen. She’s a few months away from her 16th birthday when, during a process known as The Claiming, she’ll be consumed by either light or darkness. She even has a snazzy tattoo on her hand that counts down the days.
There’s an awful lot of destiny at play in “Beautiful Creatures.” Perhaps too much.
Lena’s not-so-sweet 16 coincides with the most powerful solstice in 5,000 years, as well as the anniversary of the Caster Curse, enacted when Lena’s great-great-great-grandmother used a forbidden spell to bring back her lover, Ethan’s ancestor, from the dead during the same Civil War battle that seemingly every able-bodied male in Gatlin re-creates as an annual celebration.
It’s a lot to keep up with, even before you factor in Lena’s sexed-up cousin Ridley (Emmy Rossum), a siren who twists boys’ hearts into pretzels, and the evil presence known as Sarafine, the most powerful Dark Caster around.
The biggest problem is that, after so much time devoted to setting the stage for The Claiming, the threat — whatever that might be — never feels real. It seems to boil down to, if Lena wants to be a Light Caster, she can’t be with Ethan. Or something like that.
Still, in the hands of writer-director Richard LaGravenese (“P.S. I Love You”), “Beautiful Creatures” is so much better than it needs to be.
Viola Davis, as Ethan’s de facto caretaker, helps class up the joint. As do Irons and Thompson, even though the latter spends more time chewing the scenery than Violet Beauregarde.
And there are some nifty visuals, ranging from Ravenwood Manor — spooky on the outside, Tim Burton-meets-Diddy on the inside — to the look of Lena’s Claiming, for which the extended Ravenwood clan turns up dressed like Capitol extras from “The Hunger Games.”
But the movie’s real strength is in its young leads — glammed-down, rough-around-the-edges types who wouldn’t make it past lobby security at The CW.
There’s nothing flashy about either of them, and they seem like they could actually come from a place like Gatlin.
It’s the sort of place that, unlike Ethan, you won’t necessarily be in a hurry to leave.
On the other hand, considering everyone involved is banking on “Beautiful Creatures” becoming a franchise, there’s not much about Gatlin that demands another visit.
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Christopher Lawrence is the film critic for the Las Vegas (NV) Review-Journal. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org