Ava DuVernay excels at making her characters feel utterly, wholly human, even when the fully realized worlds around them threaten to swallow them. She’s made audiences care deeply about a woman who puts her career on hold to provide emotional support for her incarcerated husband, and she’s deftly re-emphasized and recontextualized the devastating emotional toll of the country’s incarceration complex. In Selma, she grounded a historical movement that’s been glossed over and bowdlerized by time and memory, reminding us that there were real people at its center, and in Queen Sugar, which she created, a black farming family in contemporary Louisiana is filled out with an array of characters, all of them with rich backgrounds, clear desires, and distinct personalities.
Understanding all of this about the prolific filmmaker, I take no pleasure in reporting that her latest feature, A Wrinkle in Time, stumbles in its world building and can’t quite find its groove. With DuVernay working on her largest canvas yet—the Disney film’s $100 million budget dwarfs Selma’s $20 million—this adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s beloved and controversial sci-fi fantasy novel features a (mostly) outstanding cast and a refreshingly bizarre story that it seems unsure how to deal with.
The film opens somewhere much more down to Earth, as we see a young Meg Murry bond giddily with her NASA scientist parents, Alex (Chris Pine) and Kate (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), in their home laboratory. After she’s given a handmade fortune teller with a heart drawn upon it, which when opened, causes the heart to disappear (“Our love is not gone,” they tell her, “it’s just enfolded”),we cut to the present day, where a teenage Meg (Storm Reid) and her doting, precocious younger brother, Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe), confront the fourth anniversary of Alex’s mysterious disappearance. Meg is now a sullen loner, described as “hostile” by her school principal (André Holland, in an all-too-small role). All of which, of course, is only prelude to her Call to Adventure. At home later that night, a witch (Reese Witherspoon) in a billowing gown with a truly otherworldly amount of ruffles suddenly appears in their living room. Her name, she explains, is Mrs. Whatsit, and she and Charles Wallace are already well-acquainted. She tells a bewildered Kate that she and her husband had been correct, that “There really is such a thing as a tesseract” (a fifth dimension that folds in space and time) before vanishing into the night as abruptly as she arrived.
All of this occurs within the first 15 minutes, which may leave the audience with a bit of whiplash, as they’ve barely had a chance to become attached to Alex and begin grieving before we’re on our way to rescue him. No sooner has Mrs. Whatsit come and gone than a classmate named Calvin (Levi Miller, who previously starred as Peter Pan in Pan) is introducing himself the next day, instantly smitten with Meg after seeing her stand up to a bully, and tagging along as Charles Wallace introduces them both to another mysterious friend, Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling), and finally, the ethereal Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey). The three “Misses” have been contacted by Alex, who is trapped somewhere far out in the universe (or is he in another dimension?), and it’s up to Meg to find him and destroy the evil thing—known as the It—that’s keeping him there.
As Meg, Charles Wallace, and Calvin embark on their mission, the plot zips along, with our protagonist repeatedly establishing herself as a girl plagued with insecurities about her looks and capabilities as everyone around her insists she’s an extraordinary human. It’s standard storybook stuff, but it’s made new again by the fact that this character is a girl, and a girl of color at that. When the recognition of this is subtle, such as when Calvin compliments Meg’s curly hair, and she hardly believes him, it’s effective. More often than not, however, her talents are remarked upon in overwrought, clumsily spoken dialogue, such as when, after Meg has put her physics expertise to use in order to save them both from a tornadolike phenomenon, Calvin stares at her googly eyed and coos, “You have no idea how incredible you are, do you?” Perhaps this kind of repeated underlining will help kids catch on, but adults are likely to be left thinking, We get it already.
In casting Winfrey as the sage leader of the Misses, A Wrinkle in Time milks her life-coach persona for all it’s got, and comments about Mrs. Which’s size (she can make herself appear as small as a human or loom as large as Lady Liberty) resonate with Winfrey’s many years coming to terms with her dimensions in public. Up to this point, Oprah’s occasional forays into acting have always been imbued with not just dignity but also complexity—think Sofia in The Color Purple or Gloria in The Butler—but here the anointments of deity so many have conferred upon her for years now are rendered literally. Meanwhile, Witherspoon’s Mrs. Whatsit, who exudes the spunk and sass of Mrs. Frizzle, and Kaling’s Mrs. Who, whose human vocabulary is limited to famous quotes from Buddha to OutKast to Lin-Manuel Miranda, provide a welcome balance of levity.
Watching A Wrinkle in Time unfold, I had to keep checking myself, wondering if perhaps the reason the film wasn’t working for me was because I’m not its target audience—a young adult. Indeed, the film leans heavily into the perspectives of its youthful protagonists, to the point where at times it feels like it were actually the fantasy of a 14-year-old kid. The generically beautiful Calvin is Ansel Elgort lite, and his flirtations with Meg fall flat and feel shoehorned in. Later, the narrative takes a turn into demonic child territory, and Charles Wallace essentially channels an infamous Twilight Zone episode. Depending upon how you feel about demonic children in general, your mileage may vary here, though DuVernay’s camera succeeds in balancing the creepiness (which could prove too much for some small children) with some dark humor.
A Wrinkle in Time shouldn’t be viewed as the final word on DuVernay’s capabilities in taking on a $100 million movie (the first woman of color to do so, ever) or as proof that she’s better working in “reality” as opposed to fantasy. Even a filmmaker as talented as this year’s Best Director winner, Guillermo del Toro, took a couple of movies before he found his footing in the Hollywood system, and arguably some filmmakers given as many chances as Zack Snyder still haven’t. Indeed, DuVernay isn’t credited as a screenwriter—Jennifer Lee (Frozen) and Jeff Stockwell (Bridge to Terabithia) are—and so we’re left to determine who is responsible for the script’s lack of subtlety and nuance.
Still, for all of Wrinkle’s unevenness, DuVernay still manages to draw out some glimpses of more intimate beauty, the kind that one expects from the filmmaker. The most notable one comes toward the end, in an encounter between Meg and Alex that’s set against a new Sade song, written for the film. Reid’s performance is never so grounded as it is here, and DuVernay allows the scene to breathe and your tear ducts to well up. Amid the Oz-meets-Wonderland worlds we visit, I yearned for more scenes like this. They remind viewers that DuVernay’s talents aren’t gone, as the clunky screenplay might put it. They’re just enfolded.