Dir: Richard LaGravenese. US. 2013. 124mins

Beautiful Creatures

Now that the Harry Potter and Twilight film franchises have run their course, Hollywood is undoubtedly searching for the next supernatural-romance series to lure young audiences. Beautiful Creatures may temporarily fill that commercial void, but this Southern tale of witchcraft and adolescent hormones doesn’t cast much of a spell. An adaptation of the 2009 novel by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl, Beautiful Creatures is occasionally sexy and sassy, but mostly it’s just silly.

The film’s light touch and confident tone soon evaporate once the lumbering plot machinations take over, pummelling us with a storyline that’s both overly complicated and numbingly familiar.

Opening in the US on February 14, this Warner Bros. release is no doubt hoping to snag the Valentine’s Day date crowd, although Beautiful Creatures will be competing with the Nicholas Sparks romance Safe Haven for that distinction. Moderate star power from Jeremy Irons, Emma Thompson and Viola Davis may help a little, but audience familiarity with the book may go just as far in courting crowds. Still, this looks like only a moderate theatrical performer that will probably skew toward teens and twentysomethings, predominately female.

The film stars newcomer Alden Ehrenreich — who will also be seen in the forthcoming Stoker — as Ethan, a 17-year-old stuck in a conservative small town in South Carolina who dreams of a bigger, better life once he leaves home for college. But before that happens, he becomes enchanted with a new girl in school, Lena (Alice Englert), whose uncle is the creepy recluse Macon (Irons), whom everyone in town believes is a Satanist. It turns out that he has magical powers, as does Lena, who will go through a frightening transformation once she turns 16, at which time it will be determined whether she is to become an agent of good or evil. Her world forbids her to fall in love with a mortal, though, which causes problems for her budding relationship with Ethan.

Adapted and directed by Richard LaGravenese, who received an Oscar nomination for his script for The Fisher King, Beautiful Creatures does a fine job establishing its locale, showing how the bright, bookish Ethan longs for someone that can stimulate him intellectually. Ehrenreich and Englert have a sweet, slightly dorky rapport that feels appropriately modest for two ordinary high school students. (In other words, it lacks the melodramatic bombast that was a fixture of the Twilight courtship.)

At first, Beautiful Creatures indicates that it might be a shrewder, funnier variation of the typical teen fantasy-romance, providing its characters with naturalistic dialogue and one-liners. At the same time, though, Irons hints at the movie’s initial flirtation with camp, subtly hamming up his portrayal of the seemingly sinister Macon. Likewise, Thompson seems to be enjoying herself in her role as a caricature of a prudish Southern conservative. (She gets to show another, feistier side when it’s revealed that her character’s body has been taken over by a malicious spirit who’s after Lena.)

Unfortunately, the film’s light touch and confident tone soon evaporate once the lumbering plot machinations take over, pummelling us with a storyline that’s both overly complicated and numbingly familiar. (As per norm in fantasy fiction, an all-powerful curse can only be remedied by an impossible solution that will, naturally, be solved.) As a result, the film’s likable characters and diverting Southern atmosphere fall by the wayside for the typical romantic gooeyness and life-or-death stakes that never feel quite as urgent as they should.

Adding a little sizzle as Ridley, Lena’s evil cousin, is Emmy Rossum, whose sly sex appeal injects a nice naughty undercurrent to the somewhat chaste proceedings. As for Davis, she’s trapped playing a traditional Wise Elder role that she essays capably because of her usual quiet elegance. But as Beautiful Creatures becomes more entranced by dark arts and Ethan and Lena’s Romeo And Juliet-like love affair, the storytelling grows more overheated and ludicrous, an environment in which the actress’s calm gravitas doesn’t do much good.

Filmed in Louisiana, Beautiful Creatures is aided by cinematographer Philippe Rousselot, production designer Richard Sherman and costume designer Jeffrey Kurland’s colourful, understated eye for sleepy Southern life. But the film’s pleasing look — which includes dream sequences and a flashback to the Civil War (for an answer to one of the movie’s central mysteries) — becomes a case of a shop-worn tale being dressed up in fancy new threads. Love may never die, but movies like Beautiful Creatures suggest that, unfortunately, sometimes love stories are recycled to death.

Production companies: Alcon Entertainment, 3 Arts Entertainment, Belle Pictures

Domestic distribution: Warner Bros. Pictures, www.warnerbros.com

Producers: Erwin Stoff, Andrew A. Kosove, Broderick Johnson, Molly Mickler Smith, David Valdes

Executive producer: Yolanda T. Cochran

Screenplay: Richard LaGravenese, based on the novel Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl

Cinematography: Philippe Rousselot

Production design: Richard Sherman    

Editor: David Moritz

Music: thenewno2

Website: www.beautifulcreaturesmovie.com

Main Cast: Alden Ehrenreich, Alice Englert, Jeremy Irons, Viola Davis, Emmy Rossum, Thomas Mann, Emma Thompson, Eileen Atkins, Margo Martindale, Zoey Deutch, Tiffany Boone, Rachel Brosnahan, Kyle Gallner, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Sam Gilroy