Fans of Southern Gothic mysteries and the TV show Charmed should be enticed by Beautiful Creatures (* * ½ stars out of four; rated PG-13; opening Thursday nationwide).
But this teen supernatural fantasy is clearly aiming for the much huger Twilight fan base.
Unlike the massively popular vampire series, this romp into the occult has a potent sense of humor. That comic edge and strong dialogue raises the movie's quality over most teen romances.
There's a Romeo-and-Juliet-style romance at the heart of the tale. Ethan (Alden Ehrenreich) is a smart and sensitive high schooler who avidly reads Kurt Vonnegut and William Burroughs and can't wait to escape his small South Carolina town and its narrow-minded denizens.
"They keep re-enacting the Civil War like it's gonna come out different," he says in an amusing voice-over narration.
Ethan meets Lena (Alice Englert), a mysterious new girl in town who reads Charles Bukowski. Smells like teen spiritual soul mates. The pair uncovers secrets about their town, their respective family histories and the nature of Southern-fried hocus pocus. But the path of young love is rarely smooth. In this case, the hiccup is Lena's occult lineage: She's a 15-year-old witch-in-training.
Lead actor Ehrenreich conveys a spirited charm, while Englert, the object of his affections, is more blandly self-contained - despite being on the cusp of becoming a "caster," the sorcerer's preferred term (as in "spell-caster"). As such, Lena is able to conjure up mighty winds and, when taunted at school, break classroom windows with her powers.
The story is based on the young-adult novel - the first in the Caster Chronicles series - by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl. Stalwart British actors including Jeremy Irons and Emma Thompson seem to relish speaking in extreme Southern accents. Irons provides many of the laughs, as do some of the quips by young Ethan, who can't wait to break free of the suffocating ties of the Bible-thumping town.
Viola Davis plays Amma, Ethan's family friend. She's a librarian and seer, but she's not given the screen time she deserves. In contrast, there's the scenery-chewing Thompson as shape-shifting Sarafine and Emmy Rossum as a sorceress named Ridley, whose idea of wicked-witchwear is not a black pointed hat but the wardrobe of a Victoria's Secret model. Irons is Macon Ravenwood, an incubus who is Lena's uncle as well as a courtly, if sardonic, recluse.
The evocative locations, complete with a creepy old manor house, sleepy bayous and trees covered in Spanish moss, are ideal for this spooky-funny story.
At its best while tossing off pop-culture humor - much of it about movies - and during the surprising reveal of the interior of Macon's haunted house, the film drags during some of the supernatural scenes and during gatherings of Lena's witchly clan.
No big surprises mark this paranormal, soap-opera-style romance with screwball comic moments. Though not enchanting, Beautiful Creatures qualifies as an entertaining guilty pleasure.
The magic of Beautiful Creatures