Ava DuVernay’s A Wrinkle in Time is the first $100 million feature to be directed by a woman of color. This is a big deal for the news chyrons and for DuVernay’s rising clout in an industry dominated by white males.
But headlines about budgets and box-office returns give us critics the blues, because they rarely have anything to do with the art and politics of cinema. For the director of such fiercely political and artistic films as Selma and The 13th, the generous Disney largesse is only relevant insofar as it helps her perpetuate her personal vision, not bury it in anonymous spectacle.
A Wrinkle in Time splits that decision. Most of the film’s nine-digit budget is consumed by CGI, a necessary expenditure in a film about interdimensional travel. To the jaded eye, the computerized landscapes feel only as original as late-Aughts video games like Flower. But beyond the requisite splendor of a fantasy blockbuster, A Wrinkle in Time does remain an Ava DuVernay movie, her fans will be pleased to discover.
The film is adapted, of course, from the beloved, multi-award-winning 1962 young-adult novel by Madeleine L’Engle, a writer possessed of prescient ideas about the multiverse. More than 50 years later, with quantum entanglement now the stuff of mainstream science textbooks, theory and technology have caught up with the progressive imaginations of yesterday’s sci-fi scribes.
These updates play prominently in the screenplay, by Frozen director Jennifer Lee. Dr. Alex Murry (Chris Pine) was trying to turn quantum theory into a reality — to “find the universe’s origin and shake its hand,” in Lee’s memorable parlance — when he disappeared four years ago, abandoning his wife and fellow-scientist Kate (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), his teenage daughter Meg (Storm Reid) and her prodigious younger brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe). As in the novel, Meg, Charles Wallace and Meg’s love interest Calvin (Levi Miller) must venture to the outer reaches of the universe, which are accessible by creating rippling tesseracts in the time-space continuum — a word that is no doubt spiking on merriamwebster.com as I type this.
The travelers will have some help in the form of a trio of celestial beings: Reese Witherspoon’s sardonic Mrs. Whatsit; Mindy Kaling’s aphoristic Mrs. Who, who communicates solely in cited quotations from enlightened humans; and Oprah Winfrey’s towering Mrs. Which, ruler of almost everything and everyone. Sounds about right. Winfrey plays her as sartorial, queenly, presidential — or at least what presidential used to be — which is to say she just needed to be herself. She received top billing for being in the film for about 20 seconds, but who can complain? She’s freakin’ Oprah.
But as in any good young-adult story, the three children receive assistance only to a point, then they’re on their own, navigating their fears and insecurities as well as the deceptions and temptations of the dark planet of Camazotz. Unlike their initial foray into the verdant paradise of Uriel, Camazotz has been overtaken by the IT, a contagion of evil spreading its tentacles of hate and despair throughout the cosmos. And it’s where Meg and Charles Wallace suspect their poor father has unfortunately stumbled.
DuVernay’s restraint is evident in her judicious cutting — deleting major scenes from the book, streamlining the climax, and avoiding the more-is-more excesses of the contemporary blockbuster. She also replaced the Christian theologizing of L’Engle’s book with nondenominational bromides that, at their weakest, sound like text from an inspirational poster on a pediatrician’s wall, and at their best direct viewers to a mind-expanding bibliography. Kaling’s Mrs. Who is a wealth of references from Kahlil Gibran to Shakespeare to Outkast to Lin-Manuel Miranda (Hamilton’s “Tomorrow There’ll Be More of Us”).
As with its curated quotations, DuVernay’s cast contains more minorities than whites, a furtherance of Hollywood’s admirable diversification. An Iranian-German composer, Ramin Djawadi, contributed the film’s score, and the soundtrack is sprinkled with evocative R&B selections from Sade, Sia, Kehlani and others, generating culturally specific soul in what could have been a colorless, flavorless product.
DuVernay’s presence most comes across in the film’s strong opening third. Here, Meg has to battle her own demons — depression over her father’s disappearance, bullying from callous classmates — rather than supernatural ones, and it nearly breaks her. She’s informed on multiple occasions that there’s no reason to hold out hope for her dad’s return. “He’s not coming back,” her principal coldly asserts.
Meg may be the product of an interracial marriage, but she’s an impressionable black girl, and absent fathers is a problem that disproportionately affects African-American children. This reality lingers in the margins of her journey in a more significant way than L’Engle might have imagined, deepening DuVernay’s humanism.
There are some clunky scenes and hokey exchanges in A Wrinkle in Time, to be sure, but they’re forgivable in a movie that is about, among other things, forgiveness, along with acceptance, courage, compassion and tenderness. They constitute an inspiring flipside to her films about resistance and repression, and DuVernay doesn’t need $100 million to realize them.
A WRINKLE IN TIME. Director: Ava DuVernay; Cast: Storm Reid, Deric McCabe, Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling, Levi Miller, Chris Pine, Zach Galifanakis, Michael Pena, Gugu Mbatha-Raw; Distributor: Disney; Rating: PG; Opens: Today at most area theaters