It follows a well-trod path, being based on a series of best-selling books that plunge “unusual” teens into a Romeo and Juliet tale of a love between a human and Someone Not Quite Human.
But for a while, in the early going, you sense the filmmakers may entertain greater ambitions, that they see sly possibilities.
First of all, its protagonists have self-aware and ironic personalities. They even read books and discuss them.
Hot-looking high school senior Ethan (Alden Ehrenreich) notices that a strange and almost exotically pale newcomer to school, Lena Duchannes (Alice Englert), is reading a book by hipster poet Charles Bukowski.
Is that good? he asks her. Define “good,” she intelligently replies.
They live in a backwater South Carolina town that is a spoof of all backwater Southern towns imagined by Hollywood. Not only does nearly every adult still dwell in the 19th century — Civil War re-enactments are the main entertainment —but the list of banned books appears longer than the list of permitted ones.
You would expect “Catcher in the Rye” to be banned but “To Kill a Mockingbird!”
Plus neither youth is at all thrilled to be in Gatlin. For Ethan, the most beautiful thing in town is a sign on the outskirts. He loves what it says: That you’re leaving Gatlin.
So, yes, the film aspires to a sense of humor too.
When gothic elements first come into play, here too writer-director Richard LaGravenese, who has written such outstanding adaptations as “The Fisher King” and “A Little Princess,” doesn’t mind a wink to the audience.
For instance: Ethan drives Lena home one day, when her car conveniently breaks down. Home turns out to be a spooky, gated Spanish-moss-covered manor where she has come to live with her mysterious uncle. She doesn’t invite him in though because she isn’t up to giving a “haunted house tour.”
There is even wit in the set design by Richard Sherman. When Ethan does gain entry to the old mansion, its interior is in total incongruity to the exterior. It’s ’30s white-and-black Hollywood meet Goth Light.
But the main attraction is a sweeping spiral staircase that reaches up to an unseen floor. What’s most striking here is that it has no banister.
Whatever prevents horrible accidents? Ah-hah, the residents never meet with horrible accidents. But perhaps their visitors do.
Finally, the choice of such veteran actors as Jeremy Irons, Emma Thompson, Viola Davis, Emmy Rossum and Eileen Atkins in supporting roles give one hope that the film will turn convention on its head.
Alas, soon enough witches and curses and special effects pop out everywhere and that smart, sassy tone vanishes.
So one sighs and endures the FX and the dialogue stuffed with back stories and explanations of a family of Casters — they don’t like to be called “witches” — and a killing during the Civil War that links Ethan and Lena to those days … and the curse.
To be sure, all the veteran actors, many former Oscar nominees, play their roles with straight-faced earnestness that at least makes “Beautiful Creatures” — based on the novel by Kami Garcia & Margaret Stohl — function as high camp.
But I found I was less interested in what was happening to the young people and much more eager to know what banned book they might read next.
Opens: February 14, 2013 (Warner Bros.)
Production companies: Alcon Entertainment presents a 3 Arts Entertainment/Belle Pictures production
Cast: Alden Ehrenreich, Alice Englert, Jeremy Irons, Viola Davis, Emmy Rossum, Thomas Mann, Emma Thompson, Eileen Atkins, Margo Martindale
Director/screenwriter: Richard LaGravenese
Based on the novel by: Kami Garcia, Margaret Stohl
Producers: Erwin Stoff, Andrew A. Kosove, Broderick Johnson, Molly Mickler Smith, David Valdez
Executive producer: Yolanda T. Cochran
Director of photography: Philippe Rousselot
Production designer: Richard Sherman
Costume designer: Jeffrey Kurland
Editor: David Moritz
PG-13 rating, 124 minutes