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The best thing about A Wrinkle in Time is its uncompromising weirdness. Director Ava DuVernay has taken Madeleine L’Engle’s beloved coming-of-age novel—one that weaves science fiction and new age fantasy into a message of self-assurance and universal harmony—and preserved its otherworldly psychedelia. The imagery and ideas are out there, especially for a children’s film from a major film studio, and so her challenge is to make the adaptation palatable. DuVernay does not always succeed: Some characters veer from sincere to corny, and dialogue that reads forcefully sounds clunky when spoken aloud. This can happen when an ambitious director swings for the fences, as DuVernay does, and her successes mostly eclipse the occasional folly
The Murrys are a family of brilliant scientific minds. Alexander Murry (Chris Pine) believes that faster-than-light travel is possible, though his wife Kate (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) worries his ideas will alienate the scientific community. That tension is an apt metaphor for the film itself: DuVernay dares you to accept her vision, even if it means embracing the kind of sincere writing and acting that has been out-of-fashion for decades. In an attempt to prove his theory, Alexander travels via tesseract—he “wrinkles” space-time so different areas of the galaxy can be close together—and gets lost in another world. His disappearance takes its toll on Meg (Storm Reid), his oldest, by exacerbating her sense of sullen alienation in a school where cliques reign supreme.
Meg and her younger brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe) get an unexpected visitor one day. Her name is Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), who speaks in an obtuse way even if she has a sunny disposition. Charles Wallace explains that Mrs. Whatsit—along with Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey) and Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling)—will help Meg find her father. The unlikely group, including Meg’s classmate Calvin (Levi Miller) who is along for the ride, use the tesseract to wrinkle from one planet to another. As they get closer, they encounter “The IT,” a force of evil energy that has the ability to warp minds into self-absorbed negativity. The film’s central tension is whether Meg can put aside her crippling self-doubt and overcome The IT long enough to rescue her family.
In her personalized introduction to the press screening, Ava DuVernay explains how she wanted to make a film “full of light” after Selma and 13th, two challenging films that unearth systemic racism in America. Indeed, A Wrinkle in Time brims with positivity, to the point where cynical viewers may sneer at it. The three “Mrs.”—the film never explains to whom they are married—are chipper spiritual guides with bizarre affectations. Mrs. Which first appears like a giant, and the image of Oprah at 30 feet tall is more jarring than delightful. Similarly, Mrs. Who expresses herself in quotations, drawing from religious proverbs and even Lin-Manuel Miranda (he will probably think a Hamilton reference here lays it on a little too thick). As a medium, film has a way of literalizing what is abstract on the page. A giant Mrs. Which and a name-dropping Mrs. Who exist easier in the imagination than on the screen, so there is something admirable about DuVernay and her team just going for it.
A Wrinkle in Time has a surrealist streak, with multiple hallucinatory sequences that sometimes tilt toward existential horror. At one point, Meg and Calvin must outrun The IT, which has taken the form of a tornado that vacuums reality as we know it. There is another darkly comic sequence where Meg, Calvin, and Charles Wallace find themselves in a suburban dystopia straight out of The Stepford Wives, and DuVernay uses a simple tool to advance the perils on conformity.
This is heady stuff, and the script by Jennifer Lee trusts that children can intuit visual metaphors better than what they represent. You may have guessed that all the planets and action sequences have an episodic nature. This is the nature of the book, too, and if this pacing does not always work in the immediate moment, at least the film lingers more positively in the mind. In other words, you’ll forget the clumsy dialogue and remember Reid’s fearless performance when, after a long journey, she sees her father and is overcome with emotion.
This film carries in the tradition of The Neverending Story and Ferngully: The Last Rainforest, two trippy children’s fantasies that probably resonated more with their intended audiences than the adults who accompanied them. There are also echoes of The Fountain and What Dreams May Come, particularly when they explore how love is the universe’s strongest bond. All those influences converge on a film that is important for what it includes, as well as what it leaves out. This is a multi-cultural cast, for example, with a cute boy who has a crush on a cute girl because she remains tougher and smarter than he is. DuVernay’s adaptation jettisons entire sub-plots from the book, including scenes, characters, and its more overt references to Christianity. This may upset longtime fans, and yet DuVernay created a film celebrating intelligence, courage, and self-worth for a target audience who probably questions their own.
A Wrinkle in Time opens Friday in theaters everywhere.