A Wrinkle In Time is a flawed movie whose ambitions and sincerity make up for any narrative deficits it may have. While I did not love A Wrinkle In Time, I found myself close to tears in more than a couple of moments. But what really won my admiration was that much like Annihilation, Ava DuVernay’s A Wrinkle In Time doesn’t give a hoot whether I liked it or not.
For all it’s problems A Wrinkle In Time boasts a strong palpable sense of cinematic confidence. DuVernay is fearless as she explores the trippy and tangled story of the book by Madeleine L’Engle. I have never read the book myself, but if it is anything like Jennifer Lee’s script then it must be one hell of a ride.
Part of the joy of A Wrinkle In Time is the matter of factness with which it comports itself. Yes, Dr. Kate Murry (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is alarmed that a strange woman, Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), seems to have a familiar relationship with her son Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe). Kate and her daughter Meg (Storm Reid) both seem rightfully nonplussed, both by how close Charles Wallace and Mrs. Whatsit are, and how she seemed to come out of nowhere. It’s more of a mild confusion, as if this is more an inconvenience rather than a stranger barging into their house.
DuVernay and her cameraman Tobias Schliessler do something quite clever with this. Notice how DuVernay and Schliessler frame the moments in which the strange and fantastical occur. They are taken in stride. The camera seems to be at a low angle, or at the very least at Charles Wallace’s eye level. This indicates the scene is from his point of view. Charles Wallace is a child prodigy. He also seems leaps and bounds ahead of the narrative compared to the main protagonist Meg. I’d wager he’s even ahead of the audience, at least he was for me.
Yet, when the scenes requires a natural response of stupefied awe the camera is raised higher to Meg’s eye line. This is a subtle but important and effective technique. Steven Spielberg’s E.T. famously frames the entire movie both narratively and technically from a child’s perspective. The camera never goes above a certain level and the adults are marked by things kids would notice—things like jangling keys and articles of clothing—more than their face. DuVernay takes a similar tack.
She uses the tessering between worlds as a metaphor for Meg’s journey from girlhood to womanhood. DuVernay doesn’t shy away from sharp observations about Meg’s feelings and place in her world. Meg, much like Charles Wallace, is a child of an interracial marriage. A gawkish and gangly girl, she is unsure of herself. Budding womanhood is complicated enough but add in the strange disappearance of her father Dr. Alex Murry (Chris Pine) and you have yourself an emotional molotov cocktail.
The adults around her are supportive, but it’s been four years since Dr. Murry disappeared and they are anxious for Meg to move on. Answers are vital to a teenager but even more so when those answers are intricately tied to their self worth. Calvin (Levi Miller), a young boy who has a crush on Meg, tells her that he thinks her hair is beautiful. She laughs him off and accuses him of lying. It’s a small moment unless you are familiar with the complex historical baggage related to black girls and women and their hair. Black girls and women are often shamed either overtly or subtlety. (Ryan Coogler’s recent Black Panther deals with this issue as well.)
Furthermore, Meg is shown her perfect self by the darkness that stole her father, the It. The girl she sees is dressed strangely, like the white girl who bullies her at school. Her frizzy hair is now long, smooth, and straight. It’s never stated out loud but it’s a powerful little moment in a movie filled with grandiose visuals that packs a wallop for those paying attention.
The It, as we learn, is the darkness that spreads throughout the universe and has stolen Meg’s father for its own purposes. What exactly we never quite know, the It claims it’s because it wanted Charles Wallace. Either way the reason why Dr. Alex Murry was stolen is never really important to the movie. The ‘why’ of his disappearance is not as important as Meg’s questions about it.
Meg, Calvin, and Charles Wallace are led on their fantastical adventure by Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling), and Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey). Like all all-knowing and mystical guides in these types of stories, their answers to the characters questions are frustratingly enigmatic and conveniently apropos of what the main character needs to hear even if she’s resistant to hearing it. Mrs. Whatsit is the nonbeliever of the group. She adores Charles Wallace but doesn’t think Meg has the stuff for the adventure. Charles Wallace is loving, forthright, happy, and trusting. Meg is those things to a point, but she’s also stubborn, suspicious, and unsure.
Lee’s script gives us a Meg who is prickly and sometimes annoying. At times we want to throttle her while at others we want to hold her. Meg’s vulnerability shines through as she doubts not just her self-worth but if her father really loves her. They visit the home of the Happy Medium (Zach Galifianakis) in hopes of finding some clues to Dr. Murry’s whereabouts. Meg asks the Happy Medium “What if my father doesn’t want to see me?” The Happy Medium answers, “We shouldn’t be afraid of asking the hard questions but we shouldn’t be afraid of the answers either.” Suspicion and doubt are healthy things. But without some kind of investigative curiosity to find out the answers, they are worthless and a hindrance.
Storm Reid is forced to not just carry the movie but do so side by side with seasoned professionals, and a legend in her own right Oprah Winfrey. Reid has a quiet magnetic presence to her. She didn’t seem comfortable to me in the first few scenes, but as A Wrinkle In Time went along I found myself seeing her less as Storm Reid and by the end thought of her as Meg. Lee’s script goes to some dark places about fear and hate, and Reid is not only game but more than up to the challenge.
A Wrinkle In Time doesn’t flow as smoothly as it should, though. As much as I loved watching Meg’s journey, I was never fully enveloped into the world DuVernay and Lee built. Then again, I am also not a thirteen-year-old girl or a five-year-old boy, whom I suspect are the target audience. If I were, I can imagine this being the type of movie I would love.
DuVernay hits the ground running and never really stops to explain herself. A Wrinkle In Time takes it’s time exploring the different worlds. It dabbles too long in some worlds and not enough in others, but it takes the time to wallow in a child’s joy of the newly discovered. Weirdly, the big moments never really worked for me. I admired the spectacle but was never really drawn into it.
It’s the little moments that work the best. Amid all the breathtaking visuals and gorgeous imagery, the stuff that lands are the little moments. The stuff with Meg’s hair for instance. Or when Meg tells Mrs. Which she’s beautiful and she nods and responds, “You are too.” Reid’s face as Meg hears this almost brought tears to my eyes.
For all it’s faults A Wrinkle In Time is sincere. The more cynical may roll their eyes at it’s message of ‘love will conquer hate’. I would argue it’s obvious that it’s more than just a trope or fortune cookie philosophy to DuVernay. It’s a sincere belief, one she has explored in no less than two movies now. DuVernay doesn’t shy away from showing us petty jealousy and the simple bitter cruelness we show each other, including the ones we love. The argument is not that love is easy, the argument is that it is necessary.
Shrewdly DuVernay very much realizes that love can only be achieved by acknowledging our true selves, the good and bad. Meg, Calvin, and Charles Wallace are forced to go on without the ladies. Mrs. Whatsit gives Meg the gift “of her faults.” Meg replies that these are not things to be celebrated. But what DuVernay, Lee, and L’Engle are saying is you can’t love without accepting the faults of the thing you love, yourself included.
So, while A Wrinkle In Time may not be perfect it is by no means a failure on any level. DuVernay never asked me to love her movie by giving me what I want or caring about what I thought. There was no overture to the audience for their adoration. You’re either with it or your not and you’ll know soon enough which camp you’re in. I may not have loved it but, in a strange way I do have a love for it.