Here's a question you can spit back next time someone complains that our popular culture is top-to-bottom depraved: "Then why are our high-school witches, vampires and superheroes so passionate about their abstinence?" That glitter-pored Twilight hunk and Andrew Garfield's Spider-Man have won tween hearts and Hollywood billions by cavalierly refusing to sex up their franchise's beauties. There's always a plot excuse, a fear that the act of loving would lead to the beloved's destruction, but the real reason is likely Generation Awkward's preference for chaste YA over Anne Rice — and a misconception that the purest love is that that dare not doff its pants.
The latest just-say-no hero sulks through the swamps of Beautiful Creatures, a shot of pop-goth hogwash so overheated that during its run theater owners could set aside a couple aisles and cultivate Louisiana passionflower. Here not-quite-mortal witch Lena (Alice Englert) is urged by her family to spurn the love of a non-magical local boy Ethan (Alden Ehrenreich) in order to protect him from the usual forces of darkness. The new wrinkle: She is staring down her imminent 16th birthday, which in the daft mythology worked out by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl, whose books all this is based on, is the time of "claiming" when a female "caster" like herself discovers whether the forces of the universe have willed her to serve "light" or "dark." (Even in an abstinence drama, that's surprisingly conservative — that women possessed of extraordinary gifts have a 50/50 shot at being factory-set for evil.)
Makeout between the witch and her boy brings lightning down from the heavens, but these star-crossed lovers get no lustier than that. The movie hails from a world different from the one that produced Franco Zeferelli's horndog 1968 Romeo and Juliet. Here the young lovers torn apart by their families convince themselves that suffering alone is more romantic than sleeping together. It's a Puritanical twist on the beautiful-outcast fantasy that has held sway over young geekdom ever since X-Men writers first linked pubescence with superpowers.
Its primness aside, the movie is terrific fun and much more affecting than Twilight or Supernatural. Savor the candied gloom summoned up by director of photography Philippe Rousselot and production designer Richard Sherman. Director Richard LaGravenese, who also adapted the novel, lavishes the material with greater wit than its demographic demands, and the central love story feels warm blooded — the air prickles between the leads. I laughed a lot, mostly where I was supposed to: at Lena and Ethan's frisky, bookish banter ("Bukowski? Is he any good?" "Define good."). At Lena's ripostes to a squad of off-the-rack mean girls ("You must have been the pick of your litter"). And especially when the wholly grown-up-looking Ethan announces, in a sketch-comedy Southern accent, that he's a high-school junior.
As the dandyish patriarch of a family of casters, Jeremy Irons purrs and broods with arch magniloquence, at one point carping about the "voluminous backsides" of small-town South Carolinians as he tickles a Chopin piece out of a grand piano. In dress and affect, he could be the host of some long-gone UHF creature feature. He's matched in featured-player craziness by Emma Thompson, who at first seems wasted as a churchy busybody of the sort that went out with The Music Man but soon reveals her own bravura witchiness. The story is overstuffed with curses, dream visions, spell-driven freakouts, voodoo nonsense, Confederate ghosts, religious crazies, secret societies, extended witch family and testaments to the power of reading. A Southern sheriff runs his cruiser off the road, as all in movies must; the third act turns on a library research project spanning months, which is unusual in movies with police car crashes.
Also unusual: The movie's understanding of just how much books and music matter to the young people who care about books and music. Ethan is introduced with a paperback Slaughterhouse Five; he also favors the Beats and knows most of the words to "Subterranean Homesick Blues." Lena's family's creepy home is compared to Boo Radley's, but this columned, corroded plantation would fit the cover of Absalom, Absalom! At least its outside could; the foyer, my favorite of the film's jokes, is so grand and modern — tiled in white and black and dominated by a curving stairway to heaven — that it could be a set at the Metropolitan Opera.
In a movie about two smart kids bucking against a culture that doesn't value them these references are more than just character-defining shorthand. They're recommendations presented to the target demo with some urgency, worldview-expanding suggestions that could really help soon-to-be-16s not to wind up being claimed by darkness. Their spirit informs the one scene here that achieves something like horror. Ethan, in a magic stupor stirred by the Jeremy Irons character, is called upon to describe what his life will be like after high school. Ehrenreich narrates the vision with dead-eyed clarity: marry a girl he likes just enough, land a job that's not much better, have a couple kids, then lose all of the above from drinking too much and carrying on with a friend of the wife's. The movie might be bowdlerized compared to its own reading list, but for this one heartsick moment it has the fuck-the-rules vitality of Heathers, Say Anything or The Graduate. That's not bad for a movie engineered to teach the parent-approved lesson of the contemporary hero: that with great power comes great chastity.