While the movie posters might have you believing that Disney's A Wrinkle in Time, adapted from Madeleine L'Engle's Newbery-winning novel, centers around the dominating presence of its trio of high profile stars - Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, and Mindy Kaling. While such an approach may very well be necessary to market the latest film from director Ava DuVernay (Selma), the first African-American female director to helm a $100 million budgeted film, rest assured that the very heartbeat of A Wrinkle in Time exists squarely within the presence of relative newcomer Storm Reid as Meg Murry, the unusually gifted young girl at the center of this tale that rewards those willing to suspend belief with a wildly uneven yet positive and empowering story that sparkles the most whenever the camera rests squarely on the remarkably talented Reid.
Film critics are, by nature, a rather cynical lot. Tasked with viewing and reviewing multiple films on a weekly basis, it's a fair statement that sometimes that small child who fell in love with motion pictures gets replaced by a more intellectually centered and mature voice that likes to wax eloquently about acting and writing and directing and sound mixes and lensing and all those sorts of things. After all, they're the necessary ingredients of a quality film.
Of course they are.
I suppose it's understandable that the reception for A Wrinkle in Time has, thus far, been rather middling at best. However, you should know going into A Wrinkle in Time that this is not a film for the cynics of the world but for the lovers and the dreamers and the hopesters and the people who really believed Paddington when he said so perfectly "If we're kind and polite, the world will be right."
After an initial scene establishing the preciousness of the father/daughter relationship, we meet Meg on one of those dark and stormy nights when one's unhappiness tends to swirl around in a festering tornado of emotions. She misses her father (Chris Pine), a noted scientist who went missing four years earlier just when he was on the verge of a major discovery. She's also struggling to deal with a bullying Veronica (Rowan Blanchard), whose gifts for identifying Meg's weak spots and pushing those buttons have caused the young girl to hate herself and the world around her.
Of course, we know that this is not long to last.
Encouraged by Meg's brother Charles (Deric McCabe), the otherworldly figures of Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling), Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey), and Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon) will send Meg, Charles and Calvin (Levi Miller) on a journey through the universe to rescue Mr. Murry from the ever growing darkness in which he is trapped on the planet Camaszotz. If successful, it is believed, they can unite to beat back the forces of evil with their hearts and minds.
The world that DuVernay creates for this unbelievably believable journey to take place is immersive and mesmerizing. Tobias A. Schliessler's lensing is enveloping, perhaps at times too much so, at times dominating the story yet never truly suffocating it and, at times, also seeming to rest squarely in Reid's capable hands. Paco Delgado's costume design is simply stellar, while Naomi Shohan's production design creates a world that should leave children and adults alike more than a little breathless.
DuVernay's attention even in creating the film's darkest forces is impressive, the balance of light and dark an inspired creation.
While one can certainly argue that DuVernay's approach to A Wrinkle in Time is occasionally wildly uneven, and I have no doubt that adults and those darn cynical film critics will make such an argument, there's something inspired about DuVernay's ability to weave into the fabric of the film elements a more modestly budgeted indie flick alongside this bona fide big budget Disney flick. DuVernay's earliest scenes are surprisingly intimate for such a special effects-laden film, an approach that may feel off-putting yet an approach that helps to build a relationship with these characters in such a way that even those not familiar with the source material, all thirteen of you, can fully appreciate the story.
It's fair to say that Madeleine L'Engle's hundreds of pages aren't fully realized on the big screen here, a virtual impossibility. Yet, DuVernay quite ably makes the transition from lower and modestly budgeted films and proves that she's quite the cinematic force. Between Selma, The 13th, Middle of Nowhere, and now A Wrinkle in Time, DuVernay proves herself to be a visionary director.
I will confess that I had questioned the wisdom of DuVernay's casting of Winfrey in such a vital role, but Winfrey is, in fact, rather sublimely cast as the larger than life personality known as Mrs. Which. Reese Witherspoon is similarly spot-on as Mrs. Whatsit, whose relationship with Meg becomes rather like that of a big sister, simultaneously challenging yet constantly companioning her toward her highest good.
How emotionally honest is A Wrinkle in Time? It's so emotionally honest that one of the film's most satisfying moments comes from none other than goofy funnyman Zach Galifianakis, who seems to have acquired the late Robin Williams' gift for sincere quirk. As The Happy Medium, Galifianakis takes young Meg into some dark spaces in an effort to clear the energy that will allow her to live transparently within the world and move closer to finding her father. It's an odd scene, really, yet it's one of several beautifully simple and honest scenes.
In addition to Storm Reid's breakout performance here, Deric McCabe is an absolute gem despite having a character that feels a little undercooked. Young Levi Miller, of Better Watch Out, is also top notch.
A Wrinkle in Time has always possessed deeper cultural observations than it has been given credit. DuVernay finds these moments and brings them to life in ways both tiny and small and sweet, such as in dealing with Meg's curly, black hair that reflects her biracial ethnicity. Yet, DuVernay also embraces the film's universal themes and demand for visual effects. It's a difficult balance, perhaps not always a perfect balance, but nearly always a beautiful balance.
A Wrinkle in Time may very well not be for everyone, yet it should be for everyone. Filled to the brim with positivity and a progressive spirit, A Wrinkle in Time is a hopeful message during a time when our society could really use a whole lot more hope.
"I don't understand it any more than you do, but one thing I've learned is that you don't have to understand things for them to be." - Madeleine L'Engle, "A Wrinkle in Time."
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic