Film Review: A Wrinkle in Time

by Carrie Kahn on March 9, 2018

Wrinkle for our Time: DuVernay’s adaptation worth the wait

Calvin (Levi Miller, l.), Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe), and Meg (Storm Reid) face danger and confusion on the erie planet Camazotz.

If you’re going to go see A Wrinkle in Time, director Ava DuVernay’s new Disney big budget adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s classic 1962 young adult novel — and I absolutely think you should — there is one thing you should keep in mind: this movie is not meant for you, dear adult Spinning Platters reader. This movie is for the tween and teen set, whose imaginations haven’t yet been curdled by cynicism, and who want — and need — to be swept away by the adventure and spectacle of a story that will reassure them that they are brave, smart, kind, and worthy of love and acceptance. That’s a powerful message, and DuVernay’s new film delivers it with exactly the kind of spirited fun and genuine emotion that kids love, but jaded adults may scorn. And that’s a shame.

DuVernay, who with this picture becomes the first female African-American director to helm a movie with a 100 million dollar budget, teams with young adult screenplay writers Jennifer Lee (Frozen; Zootopia; Wreck it Ralph) and Jeff Stockwell (Bridge to Terabithia) to bring L’Engle’s complex, time-bending novel to vivid life, a feat that for years many didn’t think was possible (L’Engle was reportedly disappointed by an admittedly poor 2003 TV movie effort, and died four years later; I’d like to think she would have been pleased with this version). L’Engle’s story, about the bookish, insecure middle-schooler Meg Murry (Storm Reid), her 6-year-old prodigy brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe), and her loyal classmate and friend Calvin (Levi Miller) and their quest through time and space to find her missing scientist father (Chris Pine), is an inherently cinematic tale.

Although Lee and Stockwell don’t follow L’Engle’s book to the letter, which may dismay some of the novel-loving purists, the screenplay manages to successfully and artfully maintain the heart and soul of L’Engle’s timeless story of love and family. And under DuVernay’s skilled execution, the book receives the rich cinematic vision it has long deserved.

Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey, l.) tries to convince Meg (Storm Reid) she is stronger than she thinks. 

The most notable change to the 1962 book is a much welcome update to the Murry family. Here Meg is bi-racial (Gugu Mbatha-Raw plays her determined mother Kate), and the twin brothers from the novel are nowhere to be found. Instead, Meg’s remaining sibling is young Charles Wallace, who, in a nice touch that goes along with the film’s overarching themes of inclusion and diversity, is Filipino-American, having been adopted by the Murrys as an infant. But the bonds between parents and children and siblings here are real and true and unquestionable, which echoes the book. These familial bonds are so movingly portrayed on screen here, in fact, that when at one point Meg declares, “I won’t leave without my little brother!” this big sister of a little brother (never mind that he’s a 6’2 father of two) dissolved into a puddle of tears on the theater floor.

This message of the importance of unwavering love and kindness — even when we’re uncertain, afraid, or flawed — is of course just as relevant and necessary today as it was back during the Cold War when L’Engle’s book was first published. The filmmakers avoid heavy handedness while still getting their point across; in one particularly well-crafted scene, Meg — and we — are able to clearly see that some of her perceived enemies or rivals, including her school principal (Moonlight’s Andre Holland, in a small but pivotal role), a next-door neighbor Mean Girl bully (Rowan Blanchard), as well as a seemingly innocuous neighbor and Calvin himself all have painful backstories — their own personal darkness — that they don’t share with anyone. That important but often hard to remember notion that “you never really know what’s going on with someone, so be nice” is brilliantly expressed here.

These sorts of wise life lessons can fall flat, though, if they come across at all false; luckily DuVernay’s core cast rises to the challenge of delivering the material, especially the young actors. Reid, Miller, and McCabe, as they should, get the majority of screen time, and are always authentic and never cloying or too precious. Reid is the standout, giving a stunning performance that will have you reliving your own middle school awkwardness; her puzzlement and uncomfortableness at receiving a compliment is heartbreaking and true. Following on the heels of Wonder Woman and Black Panther, DuVernay has made another movie in which previously underrepresented segments of the population can now see themselves portrayed as capable, intelligent, and worthy heroes.

Chris Pine, of course, is always a welcome presence on screen; now you’ll go from wanting him to be your boyfriend to wanting him to be your Dad. Young as he is, he is utterly believable as a bereft and chagrined father who loves his children beyond measure. Zach Galifianakis brings some refreshing levity to the Happy Medium, a Seer who aids Meg on her quest. And Michael Peña as a creepy, wanna-be friend to the kids and David Oyelowo, as the evil villain IT, give their all in a few small but key scenes.

Zach Galifianakis plays the Happy Medium.

Where the movie falters, actually, is in its big name casting. As everyone who’s seen the film’s trailer or ads knows by now, Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, and Mindy Kaling play Mrs. Which, Mrs. Whatsit, and Mrs. Who, respectively, the trio of celestial beings who start Meg off on her search for her father. Of course when Winfrey first appears on screen, she literally appears as a giant — about ten times the size of everyone else, in what can only be a planned, winking joke to the adults in the audience — because of course Oprah is huge, and larger than life, right? This choice not only feels unwarranted and tonally out of step with the rest of the movie, but also brings us to a noteworthy point about the trio’s casting.

While Winfrey, Witherspoon, and Kaling are all top-notch actresses, their casting here ultimately proves distracting; the film may have fared better with lesser-known — or even unknown — actresses in their roles. Because these roles actually aren’t that big (Mrs. Which’s size notwithstanding), instead of truly losing ourselves in these individual characters, we can’t help but look at the trio on screen and think, yup, there’s Oprah, Reese, and Mindy in cool costumes and fancy make up, and the reality of Big Name Stars pulls us right out of the fantasy.

That said, Winfrey does bring a necessary gravitas, and the scenes she has with Reid will start up your tear ducts again, as Mrs. Which tries to instill confidence in a girl who doesn’t trust her own abilities. And, as in the book, Kaling’s Mrs. Who spends most of her screen time spouting motivational quotes from famous authors; that Lee and Stockwell have her quote Lin-Manuel Miranda at one point is an inspired, modern choice that again underscores the film’s we’re-all-in-this-together and we-all-matter point of view.

Finally, some of the action shots run just a tad too long, and parents should keep in mind that there are some pretty scary sequences. The movie’s PG rating seems appropriate; kids younger than 11 or 12 may be frightened or confused. But for older kids and adults who still remember being a kid, DuVernay has created a Wrinkle for our time. Be a warrior, Mrs. Which tells us; bring hope back, and resist the darkness. DuVernay’s film has done just that for a new generation.


A Wrinkle in Time opens today at Bay Area theaters.

Carrie Kahn

Moving from the arthouse to the multiplex with grace, ease, and only the occasional eye roll. Proud new member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle.

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