The following contains minor spoilers of Beautiful Creatures.
I've never liked the Twilight movies. And I've tried. What turned me off wasn't the romantic lead sparkling in the sun, or the complicated and somewhat creepy concept of imprinting,it wasn't even Edward Cullen's excessive brooding: it was Bella. And upon watching the film billed as the "next Twilight," Warner Bros.'s Beautiful Creatures, I finally found what I was looking for: a fantastic young lead in Lena Ducchane.
On paper, Lena (Alice Englert) and Bella (Kristen Stewart) aren't all that different. They both love to read, they both feel as if they don't belong, and they're both not concerned with wooing the boys at school until the right one arrests their attention. (And that's the reason I never got into Young Adult Fiction: cliches.) But in practice, at least as far as the movies are concerned, Lena is a far better character, especially for a YA audience. Sorry, Twihards.
Lena is a bit of a problem child. She's a caster (a more humane word for "witch") and she's got powers she can't quite control that get her in trouble from time to time. It's these growing pains that make her an actual outcast at school, fielding constant cruel jokes about devil worship from her Southern belle classmates. Bella constantly feels she's not like her classmates, and as such, is withdrawn, even when the girls at school befriend her. She mumbles, she broods, she goes after a man who behaves like 30 year-old from the 19th century like a lovestruck little girl. She’s convinced no one understands her, but it’s her own barriers that are keeping her from making connections.
Lena would never behave like that. She's truly outcast and a brain, so her feeling otherness is expressed by pouring herself into reading Charles Bukowski novels and multitudes of poetry. It’s something Bella’s character is supposed to do as well, but Lena’s character actually seems to cull meaning and a sense of self from her literary learnings. She's highly educated, and independent, to the point where she's barely even willing to let her suitor Ethan Wate (Alden Ehrenreich) give her a ride home... after her car breaks down... in the rain... on a country road. She’s no damsel in distress, like Bella, whose first encounter with Edward is being saved by his brute strength. This is a girl after my own heart.
Yes, Lena eventually falls hard for Ethan, as even bookworms are wont to do, and of course, it's not long before they're in love (this is a YA story, after all). But it's the way they handle themselves that's truly exemplary. In the Twilight books, Edward is unable to be too affectionate with Bella for fear of hurting her. At the surface, it's because he's a vampire, but the underlying meaning is one of extreme chastity and resistance to temptation. It’s a little 1950s. Every time Bella hopes to go a little further with Edward, he makes her wait, promising to consummate their love when they are married, not when they’re older, or when they’re ready. When he puts a ring on it. Without Bella even attempting to go to college. Why would she? She's going to be 18 forever, so who cares, right?
Lena and Ethan, however, are a little more liberal, a little more modern day. The couple doesn't hop into bed together (although they do literally cuddle in a bed, clothed, at one point), but there are no obnoxious metaphors for chastity and restraint. If anything, their story of love in the face of adults who try to keep them apart is a case for young people being more capable of making their own decisions than their elders give them credit for. It's not a PSA for teens to have sex, but it promotes trust in young people to make the right, educated decisions for themselves while acknowledging the potential for teens to feel something as deeply as Lena and Ethan do. It’s a healthier, more modern picture of young love than the one we get in Twilight. And while both youngsters love each other so much, a makeout session could light a roadside sign on fire (and does), college is a constant element of their plans. The future is not just sex in Rio and eternal marital bliss.
And it’s the element of an educated, rational choice that separates Lena’s story from Bella’s. When Miss Swan decides she wants to change her whole life and give up her relationship with her mother to be with Edward, she’s doing so with passion, and a love so consuming that she’ll give up anything for it (we’re assured of that when she pulls daredevil antics in the second movie to induce visions of Edward). Lena, however, is struggling to find herself and her true path, whether that be light or dark magic, and she’s desperate to figure out how Ethan fits into her plan. She's not trying to figure out how her life could change to make her fit into Ethan's.
Even though her love will do anything to help her find a way to ensure she stays on the side of light magic, Lena eventually sends him away so that she can figure out the plan on her own. This is her cross to bear, it’s not something that Ethan or her uncle can be a part of. She spends her days studying a spell book, seeking a way to deny her family’s dark magic curse and the rules of the caster world that dictate that women cannot choose their own fate. When she finds the answer, which requires Ethan to die, she makes the mature, selfless decision to sacrifice her own happiness to save him. She wipes his memory of her and journeys to her magical claiming solo, where she chooses not light or dark, but a combination of the two. She completely rewrites the norm and forges her own path.
It can be argued that Bella breaks the rules too when she not only bears a human-vampire hybrid, but survives the process and becomes a vampire, however, that happening is something of a miracle. At best, she accomplishes the feat through a stubborn sense of hope. Lena, however, accomplishes the change she seeks in the world through hard work and education. It’s a dry message when it’s spelled out so simply, but that’s why we have things like magic and romance to coat it with.
At the heart of Beautiful Creatures is an obstacle that can only be overcome by the willpower, knowledge, and dedication of our strong heroine. Bella becomes a strong mother by the end of her journey, she follows her heart, and she changes her fate, but it’s not the same. Lena is exactly who she is always going to be at the start of Beautiful Creatures, and she strives throughout the film to maintain that sense of self and to find a way in which the person she is fits into the larger world, whether that includes the girls at school and a boyfriend, or not. In the end, it's the fact that Lena is so well-read and so resolute in who she is that attacts Ethan. It's not some cosmic calling, much like the magnetic pull between Edward and Bella. With Ethan and Lena, it's a matter of mutual respect and admiration.
Lena's story is what young girls should be yearning for: the ability to truly understand themselves, their goals, and their desires, the dedication to make those goals a reality, and if they're really lucky, they'll stumble upon a charismatic, funny, cheerful young man to keep them company along the way.
Follow Kelsea on Twitter @KelseaStahler
[Photo Credit: Warner Bros. (2); Summit Entertainment]
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