It’s the great challenge for all the versions of “Beauty and the Beast” that no one seems able to overcome: the beast is always a far more interesting, appealing, and yes, attractive character than the good-looking but bland prince he wants so desperately to return to. When handsome, wealthy, arrogant prep school senior Kyle (“I Am Number Four’s Alex Pettyfer) is cursed by a witch his “beast” face, covered with exotic scars and tattoos, is more expressive and somehow more real than the pretty boy he was before.
In this latest re-telling of the French fairy tale that dates back to the 18th century, Kyle gets into trouble when he runs for the presidency of the school’s Green Club even though he admits in his campaign speech that he is only doing it because it will look good on his college applications. “Don’t vote for me for my commitment to the environment,” he tells his fellow students. “I don’t have one.” Despite an opposing speech from a gothy-looking girl named Kendra (Mary Kate Olsen), he is elected. But beating her isn’t enough. He plays a cruel prank on Kendra, humiliating her in front of her classmates. And so she curses him. He will look like a beast, as ugly on the outside as he is on the inside, unless within one year he can persuade someone to say, “I love you.”
His father (Peter Krause of “Parenthood” and “Sports Night”) is a television personality who believes that “people like people who look good.” He finds an apartment for Kyle with a housekeeper (Lisa Gay Hamilton) and a blind tutor (the always-terrific Neil Patrick Harris) to care for him and leaves him alone. Kyle sulks and refuses to talk to anyone for five months. (In one of the movie’s cleverest conceits, everyone at school accepts his absence without question because they think he is at rehab.) But Lindy, the quiet scholarship student (“High School Musical’s” Vanessa Hudgens) gives him a reason to want to go out. And more important, she gives him a reason to think about someone else — taking care of her and being close to her. She gives him a reason to want to be liked. And that means being seen.
I liked the way the story plays with the framework of the fairy tale, giving Lindy a reason to have to move into Kyle’s place, isolating them both.
Pettyfer, a very limited performer in his earlier films, has a looser, more confident, more genuine feel here. He even handles Kyle’s funny lines well; he admits how he found the poem he wants to share with Lindy: “I Googled ‘modern poetry’ and ‘impress girls.'” In an era of bullies and mean girls, “Gossip Girls” and “Pretty Little Liars,” it’s nice to have such a tenderhearted fairy tale.
Parents should know that this movie includes strong teen language (“crap,” “bite me,” insults, etc.), gun, off-screen killing, issues of abandonment and parental loss, and a drug addict.
Family discussion: What did it mean to say that “a cage set me free?” What does the name Kyle chooses for himself mean? How did Kyle’s home life affect him? What made Kyle decide it was time to let Lindy see him?