The fiasco over whether or not Harry Potter and author J.K. Rowling were servants of the devil may have inoculated many in Christian circles against knee-jerk reactions to youth-oriented fantasy titles involving the supernatural, but it did not stop Beautiful Creatures from stirring up some unnecessary antagonism. While the film has many genuinely engaging and entertaining qualities, its religious storyline is messy, stereotypical, and largely unhelpful.
(Warning: Minor Spoiler Alert)
Directed by Richard LaGravenese (who also wrote the screenplay, based upon the novel by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl), Beautiful Creatures is a story about a young spell-caster (witch) named Lena (Alice Englert) who will be claimed for either the light or the dark on her fast approaching 16th birthday. When she relocates to the small town of Gatlin, South Carolina to be protected by her uncle Macon Ravenwood (Jeremy Irons), Lena meets an atypical mortal boy named Ethan (Alden Ehrenreich), confronts her dark mother Sarafine (Emma Thompson), and must find the strength to control whether or not she’ll be claimed for the dark.
Beautiful Creatures’ storyline is unique enough to keep viewers interested in a media culture saturated with young adult fantasy titles. Vampires, werewolves, and wizards abound, but the “claiming” plot is fresh and even the somewhat clunky term “caster” catches on after a bit.
The cast is excellent and many viewers will leave wanting to see more — more of Emmy Rossum’s Ridley losing control and more of Ehrenreich’s Ethan rather broadly stealing the show as the “charm-drooling” and cerebrally-witty lead who lands many great comedic moments that have refreshing hints of Juno, Napoleon Dynamite, and even Gilmore Girls. Add to that a great soundtrack and there’s a lot to like.
Where the film goes awry is with its reliance on over-worn religious clichés and unnecessarily biting judgment. These elements are not actually critical for any aspect of the film, and simply muddy the waters in an otherwise reasonably fun flick.
Set in rural South Carolina, the story employs a shallow stereotype of southern gospel-ites as the means to add tension to the town. Though the supernatural forces of darkness are more than sufficient to generate the conflict for the narrative arc, the people of the town with “12 churches and 1 library” are depicted as ignorant holier-than-thou folk who fearfully want to run Lena and her family out.
This part of the story is anything but refreshing, and the [SPOILER ALERT] revelation that lead-gospelite Mrs. Lincoln is actually possessed by the disembodied Sarafine or the scene with high school girls praying to Jesus to purge the evil does little to captivate viewers who just saw a trailer for The Last Exorcism Part II only 30 minutes before.
Throughout the first half, the cool high school girls say painful lines like “Mama says devil worshippers hate fresh air,” a mother swats her son with a cross, and school issues are decided in the local church. These uncomfortably glossy stereotypes of South Carolina Bible-folk feel more like the product of Hollywood detachment than provocatively creative storytelling.
What’s worse is that the religious dialogue comes across as actually being imported for the sake of making a crass judgment about religious belief. Lena criticizes the idea of Satan (someone mortals created to blame for their own evil), and another character even criticizes foolish mortals for “praying without belief and then wondering why their spells don’t work.”
For many religious viewers who were happy to enjoy supernatural fantasy films post-PotterGate, the religious characterizations and dialogue in Beautiful Creatures foolishly reopen a fracture that is likely to turn off many viewers. While some stereotypes can actually be compelling and even productive (convincing in-group members not to ever actually act that way), those in this film simply fall flat.
Perhaps LaGravenese realized this (or was forced to realize it from the studio), giving the preacher a secularized sermon moment on sacrifice and allowing the almost-Voodoo-like Amma (Viola Davis) to say near the end “God created all things… it’s people who made up which ones were good and bad” when Ethan asks her how she can go to church after knowing about casters. After the movie’s first half barrage against foolish religious folk, these messy last minute moments are probably too little, too late for many.
Beautiful Creatures could have avoided the religious question altogether, or it could have explored a more nuanced and provocative relationship between its broader universe and a typical Biblical understanding of the world. Sadly the otherwise enjoyable movie didn’t do either.
But what are YOUR thoughts on the film? Did it need the stereotypical Bible-thumping characters? If you’ve read the book, what are your thoughts on how the movie handled this? Too much? Too little? Or maybe for you it really hit the mark?
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