Beautiful Creatures is more than skin deep

Just to make things clear, this is about the 2013 movie, not the book by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl.  I honestly haven’t even looked sideways at the book, though I probably should.  I originally watched the movie because I was bored on a long flight and I hoped it would inspire me in running a Monsterhearts game.  I was totally right.

On the face of it, Beautiful Creatures is a fairly average movie that nestles comfortably in the niche most recently made by Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series.  I haven’t read those books either, but yes, this is all about teenage monsters and teenagers who have magical powers.  See how I just implied that most teens are monsters?

I have no love for the Twilight books, and the only times I’ve watched the movies were during “watch to regret, drink to forget” parties, mourning the particularly shitty moments in my friends’ lives.  Beautiful Creatures, on the other hand, is genuinely fun and rewarding to watch.

Later on I’ll deal with what I call “the best part of this movie,” and I’ll say that it was the thing that I most appreciated, but the truth is that there were many other smaller details that I found absolutely enchanting.  The narration by Ethan, for example, was a charming introduction to the town, and his comically cynical teenager-ism is simply a delight to behold.  The teens don’t all quite look their ‘age’ (Alden Ehrenreich’s Ethan has an occasional 5 o’clock shadow, for example) but they get the snappy put-downs and general drama down pat.  Also, Alice Englert’s Lena whips up a heady cocktail of sick burns and quietly bitter insecurity that is highly entertaining from the perspective of no longer being in high school and being safe from her caustic persona.

Magic in the film is another point worth mentioning.  The special effects alternate between being intriguingly well done and appropriate, and seeming to lack the oomph which the drama of the scene demands.  But once again, Mr Ehrenreich really stands out.  His reactions to being magicked are wonderful to watch, and are often better than looking at whatever other movie magic has been liberally added to the film.  In fact, I quite enjoyed seeing the reactions of most of the people on screen throughout the movie, whether it was boys being distracted by a (very) hot lady or someone blithely trying to eat in the middle of a big fight.

Zoey Deutch, Tiffany Boone, and Thomas Mann all also deserve mention for rounding out the catty, God-fearing, and unfortunate sidekick roles with appropriate appeal.

So, that best thing about this movie?  … Well, I’ll do my best to avoid too many spoilers, but they’re pretty much inevitable.

The thing that I appreciate most is the message that I take away from it.  Lena, with Ethan’s rabid encouragement, cuts her own path and forges ahead despite the doubt and naysaying of nearly all her family members.  She goes against the received wisdom of her community, which dictates that women (well, female casters, but let’s accept that this is also a metaphor) are unable to choose their own future and will instead be either good or bad.

Though the movie doesn’t make this dichotomy explicit in its language, the imagery it uses makes it pretty clear that good women are well behaved and domestic (and if you’re a caster, old) while bad women are emotional, sexual, seductive, disruptive and pretty clearly “just evil.”  Good women may occasionally step beyond the bounds that have been set for them, but never for very long and never in large ways.  More telling, perhaps, is the fact that “good women” only appear to cross those boundaries of good behavior when they are going a little bit over the line to investigate / chastise a “bad” woman.  Hello, self-policing society.  And just in case the connections to sexuality weren’t clear, the “good” women are rarely portrayed in a sexual fashion while the “bad” women are clearly sexualized whenever they aren’t trying to hide or behave themselves.

Back to that take-away message: Lena chooses her own path.  Rather than simply becoming “Good” or “Evil,” she exercises her own free will (plus some magic, of course) and becomes something in between.  And she is willing to cut Ethan out of her life to do this.  She clearly doesn’t enjoy the experience, but she also doesn’t just curl up and die once she loses the supporting males she had in her life.  So while the movie does go in for some over-the-top sexy shots of Emmy Rossum as Ridley, the actual message I take from the movie is less about women dressing scantily and magically vamping on people and more about a young woman being able to choose her own course in life.  Which seems pretty cool to me.  Far better than the not so subtly abusive relationships on display as “normal” in certain other teen monster fiction.

Oh, and yeah, the movie totally passes the Bechdel Test.  With a mother-daughter “together we will rule the galaxy” moment no less.  Priceless.

I admit, I’ve gone for the most forgiving interpretation of the film.  But I really do think that what I’m talking about is there, and that my prognosis is fairly accurate.  Have you seen the movie?  If so, what did you think of it?

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