February is called ‘take out the garbage’ month in Hollywood. All their Oscar-worthy pics got released before the New Year, and the whole publicity machine is gearing up for the summer action flick season. So February gets the dregs. This doesn’t necessarily suggest ‘movies that suck.’ Of course, a lot of them do suck, but a post-New Year release can also include pretty good flicks that are odd or quirky or just not easy to market. So the discerning film viewer can sometimes find little gems in February, maybe something sort of strange and interesting or bizarre. Of course, mostly what happens is that some dog of a movie Jeremy Renner shot five years ago, which has since been sitting on a shelf, gets a little marketing for a February release, because he’s since done a Bourne and an Avengers and so is suddenly a movie star. (Lookin’ at you, Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters!) But from time to time, you get a Beautiful Creatures.
It’s got Emma Thompson, playing two characters: a Southern Gayle Ruzicka, and the evil demon possessing her, showing off her ‘grits, y’all’ accent and generally chewing the scenery with great gusto and appetite. You’ve got Jeremy Irons playing a Southern aristocrat, a sadly evil warlock with A Past. You’ve got Viola Davis as a small-town librarian/voodoo princess/seer. You’ve got just tons of Southern gothic atmosphere and repressed sexuality. You’ve got a climactic scene in the midst of a Civil War re-enactment. You’ve got Emmy Rossum playing an evil seductress sex goddess. It’s the kind of movie where we know the hero’s soulful because he’s read Slaughterhouse Five. And it’s got a sweet teen love story in the midst of all that. And it’s got this exchange: “Are you . . . a witch?” “No! (pause.) We prefer the term ‘caster.'”
We went to see it because my wife really liked the YA novel that it’s based on. The previews looked interesting, but we kept putting it off, because there was always something else in town that looked more interesting. But I couldn’t believe how much I liked it.
Ethan Wate (Alden Ehrenreich) is a junior in high school in a small town in South Carolina. The town is like a parody of crazy Christian conservatism–the list of books banned for high school kids ranges from Vonnegut to To Kill a Mockingbird, and Ethan hates everything about it and desperately wants out, as does his best friend, Link (Thomas Mann). Enter a new girl to his high school, Lena Duchannes (Alice Englert), who is dark and mysterious and strange. She’s accused of being a witch by the town’s insane Christian homemaker, Link’s Mom, Mrs. Lincoln: Emma Thompson. Turns out, Lena is actually a witch, a caster. She can make it rain and stuff. She can shatter windows. And Ethan can’t get enough of her.
Ehrenreich is terrifically charming and fun as Ethan. His pursuit of this strange girl makes perfect sense, and he’s so cute we totally buy her falling for him. But she’s rapidly approaching her sixteenth birthday, and casters, when they turn sixteen, either become Darth or Obi-Wan. There’s a ‘dark’ side to magic, and a ‘light side,’ and at sixteen, girls are chosen by one or the other without, apparently, being able to do anything about it. So Lena’s cousin, Ridley (Rossum) was once a nice girl-caster. Now she’s a witch-slut, tooling around in a hot little convertible and destroying police cars and seducing Ethan’s friend Link and getting into all kinds of mischief.
Either way, the romance between Ethan and Lena is doomed. Casters can’t fall in love with mortals. It’s against the rules or something. So Ethan’s dating this girl, and he’s falling for her, but on her birthday, she might turn all evil on him, plus she can’t fall in love back.
None of this means that they can’t make out like crazy. They are, after all, teenagers. And that’s one of the many things I liked about this movie–the frank acknowledgement of teen sexuality. I mean, it’s not dirty or anything. But it’s about two teenagers with the hots for each other, and that’s treated as a normal thing. Aside from the fact that she also has the power to make it snow. In South Carolina.
So, it’s also another Hollywood religion bashing movie, right? With a fanatical Christian woman as a major character? Witches=good guys; Christians=kooks? That kind of thing? Only superficially.
Late in the movie, the town’s one minister, Reverend Stephens (Randy Redd), who had hitherto been depicted as a total weenie, gives a sermon, quite a powerful one, about the power of sacrifice. And I don’t want to give away the whole entire plot. But it’s ultimately a movie about sacrifice, about, in fact, an atoning sacrifice. A main character gives his life to expiate old sins, and make redemption possible. Out of love. So, yeah, superficially, it could be seen as a Christian-bashing movie. That’s not what’s really going on, though.
When my wife and I saw the film, the theater was close to empty–the tiny audience mostly consisted of teenage girls. I assume they were fans of the novel, by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl, which is apparently very popular. They liked the movie, said it followed the book fairly well. I haven’t read the book, and probably won’t. (Apparently, it’s a series; this is book one of four.) But the movie was just demented enough to be loads of fun. I thought the two young leads, Ehrenreich and Englert were terrific, especially Ehrenreich, who has charm and comic timing and soulfulness and who never did anything that wasn’t fun to watch the whole entire movie. (Apparently, he was discovered by Stephen Spielberg, who met him at his daughter’s friend’s bat mitzvah. Hello, Schwab’s Drugstore!) The movie didn’t do well financially, and you’ll probably have to catch it on Netflix. But it’s worth watching. Especially if you’re into Southern gothic as a style, and witchcraft as a subject matter. And who isn’t?