Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
A WRINKLE IN TIME
Rated PG, 109 minutes
Director: Ava DuVernay
Cast: Storm Reid, Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling, Levi Miller, Deric McCabe, Chris Pine, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Zach Galifianakis, Michael Peña, Rowan Blanchard, David Oyelowo, Bellamy Young and André Holland
Many of us grew up on a steady diet of epic, kid-geared fantasy films like THE NEVERENDING STORY, LABYRINTH and ESCAPE TO WITCH MOUNTAIN, which helped us understand our own coming-of-age travails. In that same vein, director Ava DuVernay’s A WRINKLE IN TIME swings for the fences, hoping to become a touchstone for a new generation. Unfortunately, this divisive adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s beloved novel frustratingly slips up when it tries to do too many things. While the film is ambitious, visionary and cosmic, it’s just as equally problematic, awkward and plodding.
Middle schooler Meg Murry (Storm Reid) is desperate to fit in, but her family life has hampered her from doing so. Her father, NASA theoretical physicist Alex Murry (Chris Pine), mysteriously disappeared researching an experiment four years prior, leaving their blossoming family in the lurch. Her know-it-all younger brother Charles Foster Wallace (Deric McCabe) embarrasses her on a daily basis at school, and she’s forced to endure torment from a mean girl (Rowan Blanchard). She’s also on a rebellious streak, constantly disappointing her harried biophysicist mom, Kate (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). However, Meg’s world turns upside down when her precocious AF lil’ brother introduces her to three celestial beings – plucky Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), zen Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling), and omniscient Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey). [Side note: I’d like an SNL skit to include a fourth celestial being, Mrs. Whatthef**k, played by Tiffany Haddish]. They offer to help find her long lost father, who is somewhere far across space and time. Meg’s inter-dimensional journey grows more and more perilous as a dangerous dark force, the “IT” (voiced by David Oyelowo), threatens to overtake the universe.
Though its heart-filled sentiments are certainly in the right place, the ways in which the filmmakers communicate them are fractured and askew. The same goes for how they attempt to contextualize the book’s more cumbersome concepts, which play like an abridged version. Modern teenage problems such as bullying, insecurity, eating disorders, depression, verbal abuse, unfair societal pressure and workaholic parents are all noble things to address. The problem is that DuVernay (director of the emotionally-stirring SELMA, 13TH and MIDDLE OF NOWHERE), along with screenwriters Jennifer Lee (co-director/ writer of the rousing FROZEN) and Jeff Stockwell (co-writer of the tear-inducing BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA), pays minor lip-service to these too-numerous thematic issues. This stunted, scattershot delivery system might strike a chord with tween and teen audiences, making them feel seen, heard and empowered in a way John Hughes did for us in our youth. Tweens might also identify with Meg’s shyness surrounding her romantic crush, Calvin (Levi Miller). But for the adults in the audience, the unfocused approach and lack of depth make it difficult to connect.
The best scene involves no special effects, occurring early on in the film. It’s also here where DuVernay blessedly breaks free of traditional framing and also where editor Spencer Averick’s cuts are the most electric. When Charles Wallace hollers at his gossiping teachers during recess, it tells you everything you need to know about him, and leads fluidly into his sister’s struggle with the class queen bee. He’s defiant, wise-beyond-his years, loving, loyal and headstrong. She’s an outcast who doesn’t share her brother’s belief in her innate, purposely-hidden capabilities. We’re completely on their side, and we feel a genuine emotional pull. However, every scene after that erodes all the goodwill that one sequence brings.
Adding further to the disconnection is that hardly any of the characters react as you’d expect – you know, like humans. In translating this from book to screen, the familiarity factor between a few of the characters isn’t well communicated. For instance, when Mrs. Whatsit is introduced, Momma Murry doesn’t respond as if an insane white woman in a bedsheet wandered into their family room at the behest of her young son. Mom is surprised, but doesn’t tell this crazy woman to leave, nor does she call the local mental institution. Charles Wallace’s relationship with Mrs. Who is never questioned. Why is he entering a scary, decaying home in not the nicest of neighborhoods?! We also learn about Meg from the expository dialogue given to her school principal (André Holland) rather than demonstrably showing us her “flaws,” which come into play in the third act. Kids probably won’t be hung up on these details, but it leads to an overall mistrust in the characters being drawn. Ramin Djawadi’s score, while beautiful and immersive, also doesn’t do us any favors telling us how to feel. It’s leaned on like a crutch all too frequently.
Despite Meg exercising agency in multiple situations, using science and smarts to get out of perilous problems, she’s a bit of a cypher when it comes to her emotional drive. This shouldn’t be much of a surprise, since most of the situations involve no-stakes CG-driven nonsense. From the ride aboard a giant cabbage leaf, to the forest tornado, to the climatic face-off in the third act, the big action set-pieces falter in propelling the characters and narrative forward. It flaunts a false sense of wonder, mounting drive and emotional pull. The better sequences DuVernay infuses with an assured sense of artistry are the two set on Camazotz: the Stepford Wives-esque sub-division, and the beach where the kids meet Red (Michael Peña). These emphasize a grounded, real sense of dread, creepiness and unreality. It’s also where Tobias Schliessler’s saturated cinematography shines.
DuVernay and her screenwriters have previously shown themselves to be incredibly capable storytellers, but they are hobbled here for one reason or another. Had they given the script a couple more passes, they might’ve been able to turn in a powerful (rather than manufactured) product. That said, if the worst thing its target audience learns is to be warriors, fighting for the light in the darkness, and lead more balanced, empathetic lives, then the movie is a success.
WRINKLE IN TIME opens on March 9.