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Article posted: 2/14/2013 6:00 AM

'Beautiful Creatures' a Southern-fried 'Bewitched' for teens

Ethan (Alden Ehrenreich) falls for a mysterious new girl at school (Alice Englert) in the supernatural romance "Beautiful Creatures."

Ethan (Alden Ehrenreich) falls for a mysterious new girl at school (Alice Englert) in the supernatural romance "Beautiful Creatures."

 
A mysterious new girl at school (Alice Englert) turns out to be more than anyone anticipated in the supernatural romance "Beautiful Creatures."

A mysterious new girl at school (Alice Englert) turns out to be more than anyone anticipated in the supernatural romance "Beautiful Creatures."

 
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The Southern-fried supernatural romance "Beautiful Creatures" beams with the sort of genteel tweener appeal that neither the "Twilight" saga nor "The Hunger Games" quite achieves.

There's almost a sweetness -- at least a Tim Burtonesque sweetness -- in how writer/director Richard LaGravenese spins the obligatory elements of teen rebellion and romantic destiny wishfulness into an amusing tale of true love between a mortal guy and a more-than-mortal young witch.

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"Beautiful Creatures"

★ ★
Starring: Alden Ehrenreich, Alice Englert, Viola Davis, Jeremy Irons, Emmy Rossum, Emma Thompson
Directed by: Richard LaGravenese
Other: A Warner Bros. release. Rated PG-13 for sexual situations, violence. 118 minutes

It's a tweener version of "Bewitched" with southern accents.

Reportedly, LaGravenese ditched most of the original source material from the popular quartet of books written by Margaret Stohl and Kami Garcia. (I have not read them.) That enabled him to rebuild the story as a cinematic experience freed from the restrictions to stick to established prose.

One of the irksome elements LaGravenese apparently retains is the first-person narration by an intellectually charged high school lad named Ethan Wate (played with corn pone charm by Alden Ehrenreich).

He confesses to us how he hates living in the small town of Gatlin. South Carolina, grouses against the smallness of his life, and, oh yes, mentions how obsessed he has become with the beguiling mystery girl he keeps meeting in his dreams.

(It only takes LaGravenese 29 minutes to abandon the first-person narrative the moment he's forced to tell us about events Ethan couldn't possibly know about.)

One day at school, a new girl comes to class. Oh, no! It's Ethan's literal dream girl,

She's 15-year-old Lena Duchannes (Alice Englert, daughter of iconic Australian filmmaker Jane Campion).

In short order, Ethan learns that Lena is a witch, or to be PC about it, a "caster."

As it turns out, when caster girls turn sweet 16, a ritual called the claiming will determine if they turn to the light side of the force or the dark. (They don't actually call it "the force," but what's the difference?)

Lena worries that she might be destined for darkness, away from her new friend Ethan. She has good reason to fret.

Her dark cousin Ridley (superb "Shameless" star Emmy Rossum) shows up in a slightly ostentatious sports car and outrageous attire, exuding PG-13 level sexuality out of every caster's pore in her skin. She's not a good person, as we see when she lures a local boy to his death on the train tracks with her feminine distractions.

Ridley's not the only bad advertisement for the dark side. Guess who else shows up in Gatlin?

Lena's shapeshifting mommy Sarafine (Brit Emma Thompson, chewing the Southern scenery with delectable relish as she bounces from a quiet Southern belle to an undead wrathful spirit). She wants to draft Lena for the dark team.

Lena's 16th birthday has long been a source of dread for her guardian, Macon Ravenwood (Brit Jeremy Irons, the pinnacle of Southern hospitality and genteel manners), who does what he can to protect her.

Nothing in "Beautiful Creatures" is particularly fresh or inventive. (Although Lena conjuring up some Southern snow for a date with Ethan is a nice touch.)

It almost resembles a made-for-TV movie with easy-to-grasp, not terribly deep characters and its direct story, albeit one captured in Philippe Rousselot's stunningly composed and lighted widescreen images.

The best part of "Beautiful Creatures" is how LaGravenese takes bold potshots at book banning and Bible-thumping while keeping the issues subtle and well under the supernatural radar.

Ethan and Lena name-drop and reference novelists Kurt Vonnegut and Charles Bukowski the way normal teens might mention Justin Bieber and Kim Kardashian.

No word on if they've gone dark.

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