Let me first respond to some would-be frequently asked questions: Yes, I tend to enjoy film adaptations of young adult novels, including The Hunger Games and Warm Bodies. No, I don’t think Beautiful Creatures is the same as Twilight. Yes, I wish I had superpowers. And no, I have not yet read the book by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl.
Beautiful Creatures is the heartwarming story of a Southern boy, Ethan, who falls for a socially marginalized new-to-town classmate, Lena Duchannes. As it turns out, Lena comes from a family of “Casters,” which includes
Scar from The Lion King her rich, well-spoken uncle, Macon Ravenwood, played by Jeremy Irons. Ethan and Lena eventually date, but their romance is, of course, complicated. The Southern boy and his superpowered boo must overcome small-town prejudices, Civil War curses, and an overbearing, powerful, and previously-absent mother.
But that plot, which is neither bad nor completely original, is almost secondary to the pro-intellectualism subtext that runs throughout the film. The movie opens with Ethan, a stereotypical bound-for-better-things sort of protagonist—”My momma says there’s two types of people that live in Gatlin: the people too stupid to leave and the ones too stuck to move”—who enjoys reading banned books. And Gatlin has banned a lot of books. The fictional town of Gatlin is portrayed as a conservative, hyper-religious, aggressively traditional small town that enjoys Civil War reenactments.
But Gatlin-ians are also stupid. Or ignorant. Either way, they’d rather ban books than read them, and they constantly butcher the titles of the few popular movies that happen to show at their one movie theater. Macon, Lena’s cultured uncle, once refers to the local high school as “the institution that Gatlin presumes to call educational.” And his snark seems justified.
Despite the fact that Macon’s ancestors were founders of Gatlin, Lena and her family are outcasts, social pariahs. Placing the Duchannes family on the margins of society emphasizes the difference between Castors and other mortals, of course, but it also highlights the difference between the intelligent and the reactionary, the well-read and the book banners, the cultured and the close-minded. Macon hates non-Castors, but he doesn’t dislike them because they tend to persecute his kind—he seems to dislike them because they’re unaware, uneducated, shallow.
There is only one library in Galtin, and all of the good, likable characters are somehow connected to it. Amma, Ethan’s caretaker and Macon’s confidant, works at the library, and Lethan (Lena and Ethan) visits the library frequently. Contrarily, the film’s antagonists seem repulsed by literature. The stuck-up high school bullies, Emily and Savannah, chastise Ethan for reading banned books and throw a public-prayer-filled fit when they’re asked to read To Kill a Mockingbird for English class.
The film is nuanced enough that it doesn’t further dichotomize the silly intellectualism-versus-religion discussion; instead, it offers viewers the opportunity to watch various possible reactions to ignorance. These case studies come in the form of Castors. Some Castors are good, and others are evil. But all Castors seem to lament the narrow-mindedness of other mortals. The evil ones choose to fight back, to rule the morons. The good ones choose to love the mortals, despite their flaws. In the end, the film decides to abandon the polarization altogether: “There’s a new world mama. It ain’t all dark, and it ain’t all light, and it ain’t all ours.” Maybe that’s a decent goal: Neither mock the uneducated nor tolerate ignorance. Find the middle ground.
Richard LaGravenese: Director
Richard LaGravenese: Screenplay
Alden Ehrenreich and Alice Englert: Stars
Ben Boruff is a co-founder of Big B and Mo’ Money, and he reviews indie comics for ComicBastards.com. Some of his favorite directors are Whit Stillman, Seijun Suzuki, Noah Baumbach, Kathryn Bigelow, Stanley Kubrick, Antione Fuqua, Don Hertzfeldt, Adam McKay, and Tom Hooper. Follow him on Twitter: @BenMagicAwesome.