A Wrinkle In Time | Episode 87.5
Posted March 8, 2018
-review by Chance Solem-Pfeifer
At my screening of A Wrinkle In Time this week, Ava DuVernay appeared in a clip beforehand to offer a couple words. It was a fairly standard intro. DuVernay asserted her intention in adapting this 1962 YA novel for Disney was to return to a place of childhood wonderment circa age 11 or 12. But then she repeated that age range, this time asking the audience to mentally wind back the clock as well: less sharing, more of a quiet command. That's practical advice it turns out — like if the Safdie Brothers gave a PSA before Good Time strongly advising the audience against drinking coffee right before the movie — because A Wrinkle in Time wields sincerity as a holistic, unapologetic force.
If you haven’t a read A Wrinkle In Time (it’d been since 6th grade for me, and I only remembered the kids were geniuses and that the word “tesseract” came up), it’s about a girl’s mission to rescue her dimension-hopping father (Chris Pine) from a demonic corner of the universe. The girl, Meg Murray (Storm Reid), is coaxed into this rescue mission by her wunderkind little brother, Charles Wallace, and three, let’s call them “glam knowledge-warriors,” played by Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon and Mindy Kaling. The larger, cosmic motivation for Meg embarking on this quest is muddled on a plot level but crystal clear on a character level. And that split that defines this whole movie. What DuVernay yada-yadas with constant references to “light, dark, love, and evil,” she communicates with inspired empathy through Meg.
The Selma director’s humane vision shines from the jump. In the opening scene of eight-year-old Meg in her parents’ laboratory, the camera weaves through the adults’ movement from Meg’s perspective but then quickly finds her in the middle of their embraces, their questions, their lessons. The same visual principle applies four years later when Meg is depicted as an island during gym class. Her father has been missing since that earlier scene, and her peers move wildly and unwittingly around her as though her personal gravity has weakened and warped. Here, Reid’s performance as a child carrying trauma is remarkable for its understatement. She never overtalks or rationalizes. At this point in her journey, she’s incurious; that way lies pain. The precariousness of her age is fascinating, as Wrinkle In Time marks the uncommon children’s movie rooting for its protagonist not to grow up. Adulthood means being quiet and realistic, and the quickly evaporating hope that her father is alive is the only thing keeping her attached to her youth.
With the aid of the … am I still calling them “glam knowledge-warriors”? … Meg slowly sheds her doubts and penchant for freezing in big moments, and Reid creates a character payoff few preteen actors can. Most notably, a waterworks meeting between Meg and her father plays a bit like the “I’m sorry” scene in Good Will Hunting — a gradual breakdown into pure, thoughtless catharsis. And of course, we should recognize the commentary here specifically on a black girl being able to reclaim and extend her childhood when the world doesn’t believe her pain, when it’s constantly treating her like she’s older than she is.
Irony simply doesn’t exist in the film’s lexicon. Any cynicism you’re holding between your ears going in could well make you feel uncomfortable during this nakedly inspirational ballad of a fantasy movie. Now, if this seems like a distinction that could bog down any discussion of an adult reviewing a children’s movie, then I’m not describing it well enough. Irony, after all, is a fixture in films aimed at kids. Pixar movies are notorious and lauded for their self-awareness, for their clever winks at the parents in the theater. Think about the litany of children’s film characters whose job it is to be snide until they’re convinced of some higher purpose. A film that rings out like one long, luminous pep talk is far rarer. “Love is the frequency,” DuVernay’s films offers at one point, seemingly of its own central emotional choice. Think about the bodies of work we have from DuVernay and co-stars Oprah and Chris Pine — these are creative people for whom earnestness is the vehicle, the journey, and the destination.
Now again, if you’re looking for a thoughtful metaphor about existence to unfurl amid all the world building and bending (a la Annihilation), it won’t happen. Why there would be a centralized cobweb of evil — “the It” — in a universe with its essence spread throughout every fiber of every being, I do not know. Why Chris Pine is trapped in the bad place to begin with I do not know. Why the odyssey of tricksters and advisors on Meg’s journey ceases at, like, 1.5 is another shortfalling. Building to its climax, the movie devolves into a scenario we’ve seen 100 times before. Meg is stuck in a manifestation of hell trying to win an important ally back from the brink of corruption. It’s the end of Revenge of the Sith; it’s the end of Return of the King. At the same time, DuVernay’s well of ideas dries up as the movie darkens. The vivid, fluorescent, constantly shape-shifting goddesses are a vision uniquely hers, and Mindy Kaling’s Mrs. Who speaking only in quotes from art is a charming bit. Conversely, “the It” is indistinguishable from any other disembodied evil force native to YA novels.
But listen, if what passes for top-dollar children’s films today is Disney calculatingly remaking its whole catalog of animated classics as uncanny spectacles full of famous voices, A Wrinkle In Time’s nobility shows even further. If commitment to emotion and its evolution through a protagonist can be considered a kind of craft, A Wrinkle in Time prods and prods at the cynics in the audience until a tear, a silent fist-pump, or some kind of “uncle.” I’m just not sure I’d return to this corner of the universe again. Let’s say Good-Bad.