Once chick lit was all the rage in Hollywood. Today, studios gobble up young adult fiction like boxes of Godiva chocolates.
The latest flavor is the romantic Southern Gothic "Beautiful Creatures." But while "Twilight" and "Hunger Games" were already entrenched in our zeitgeist before hitting the big screen, "Beautiful Creatures" -- the first in a series of books by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl -- is a lesser-known commodity. That doesn't seem to trouble Warner Bros., which hopes to build a loyal, powerful female base and launch a new franchise.
Will that happen? I have my doubts, and it's not because I didn't like "Creatures." With its dangerous supernatural romance that could prove destructive, "Creatures" might seem like a "Twilight" copycat. But it's better than those empty-calorie productions.
Where "Creatures" might not connect with the Twihard fans is in its tempered approach. There's an absence of incessant pining, overdone breathy I love you soooooo muches and gratuitous acts of random shirtlessness -- the hallmarks of the "Twilight" saga. And that's likely why I enjoyed it, even though it meanders like the slow-gin conversation between two Southern gentlemen drinking on a sticky-hot afternoon.
Director/screenwriter Richard LaGravenese ("The Fisher King" scribe) seeks something less Harlequin and more substantive, with a little "Harry Potter" magic conjured in. So he layers on a dense, slightly confusing mythology, focuses on intriguing characters and then gives them smart lines of dialogue. He also takes full advantage of his supporting cast -- Viola Davis, Emma Thompson, Jeremy Irons and Emmy Rossum -- allowing them to exuberantly cut loose.
Still, the main focus stays on the can-this-ever-work-out relationship between a Kurt Vonnegut-loving Southern cutie named Ethan (a charismatic, intensely likable Alden Ehrenreich) and the strange new girl in town, Lena (a good, if not exactly memorable, Alice Englert).
Moody, but not in that Kristen Stewart, pouty-face way, Lena is quick with a retort. She's part of the ostracized Ravenwood clan -- a mysterious family with special powers that played a prominent role in the history of Gatlin, S.C. The isolated teen also has an untamed temper that can blow classroom windows to smithereens, which is exactly what happens when two pious and sanctimonious female bullies go too far.
Lena's greatest problem isn't uptight classmates but her upcoming 16th birthday, a day of reckoning when her powers as a Caster -- I'm still puzzled by what the heck that is, though I'm sure book fans won't be -- could swing to being good -- or wicked.
From Lena's point of view, the bad looks like a lot more fun when her tarted-up relative, Ridley (Emmy Rossum), slinks into town wearing revealing outfits and leading boys directly to temptation.
Rossum struts her way through the vampish role, as do the rest of the superb supporting players. Thompson hams it up as a Bible thumper with a special spirit moving her. Irons adds class and polish as Lena's suave uncle, who fears old family history might repeat itself. And Davis, as a librarian and family friend of Ethan's, proves yet again that in one tear-stained instant, she can punctuate any scene with an emotional profundity that's staggering to behold.
Their talent animates "Creatures," as we expect it would. But the one who truly anchors the movie and keeps pace right next to them is Ehrenreich. With his nervous but appealing laugh and sweet and soulful earnestness, the relative unknown instantly becomes that new kid on the block everyone gives a double take. He reminds you of a young Joseph Gordon-Levitt, an on-screen presence who wins you over when he turns up that charm.
The sincerity there is refreshing. As is this take on yet another otherworldly love story in search of fans everlasting.
* * *
Rating: PG-13 (violence, scary images and some sexual material)
Cast: Alden Ehrenreich,
Alice Englert, Jeremy Irons, Viola Davis, Emma Thompson, Emmy Rossum
Running time: 2 hours,