Review: ‘A WRINKLE IN TIME’ Empowers, But Frustrates

Ava DuVernay’s messy adaptation delivers visual sublimity and a strong message, punctuated by moments of unbearable awkwardness.

The darkness is spreading so fast these days. The only thing faster than light is the darkness.

–Mrs. Which

A Wrinkle In Time is like a beautiful table that wobbles. No matter how you decorate it, or how satisfying what you serve on it is, something’s fundamentally off.

That sucks, frankly, because I was rooting really hard for this one. Not just because Madeleine L’Engle’s imaginative novel was one of my childhood favorites, but because of director Ava DuVernay — the brilliant woman behind successful biopics (Selma) and documentaries (13th) alike, and a vital advocate for Hollywood inclusivity, here given a Disney-sized budget to bring a nigh-unfilmable adventure to the screen with an uncommon heroine at its center. And while its themes of spreading love in the darkness ring loud and clear, hopefully inspiring a new generation of girl warriors, the film takes a few stumbles to get there.

That heroine is Meg Murry (Storm Reid), the curly-haired, biracial daughter of scientists played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Chris Pine; she’s unashamed of her aptitude for math and science, but since her father’s mysterious disappearance four years ago, is deeply insecure about everything else. Before I go too negative, I want to make sure I acknowledge how significant it is to see this Meg anchoring the film, not just from a representation standpoint (and, on the heels of Black Panther, part of an overdue sea change) but thanks to Reid’s sensitive performance. Meg may be brilliant, but also faces crippling self-doubt. It’s rare to have a proper introvert as the protagonist of a fantasy story, and watching her think her way through problems is more rewarding than the sturm und drang that surrounds her.

The film meanders at the beginning, taking its time to set up the relationships between Meg, her brother Charles Wallace (a preternatural Deric McCabe), who she loves as fiercely as if he weren’t adopted, and older schoolmate Calvin (Levi Miller), who spontaneously signs up to aid Meg in her quest for reasons even he doesn’t understand. Mr. Murry, it turns out, had successfully “tessered,” or transported himself across time and space to a distant planet where he is now held prisoner by a sentient evil called “the IT,” and his call for help has been heard by three divine beings known as “The Misses”: the flighty Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling), who speaks almost exclusively in famous quotes ranging from Gandhi to Outkast, and the regal, house-sized Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey, as herself).

Their inter-dimensional rescue mission makes the case for DuVernay as a visual stylist, from the eye-popping colors of Uriel and its giant lettuce creatures, to the unsettling environments of Camazotz where Pine is trapped inside Drake’s “Hotline Bling” cube. The film also radiates sincerity, to a fault. Every interview with DuVernay and the cast leading up to Wrinkle’s release was a lovefest, and that affection shows up on the screen. The film is effective when it most needs to be — particularly in the scenes between Meg and her father (Pine is the most versatile of the Chrises, and proves it again here), and the film’s depiction of how evil works its way into people’s minds and hearts. Whatever Wrinkle’s flaws, that’s a valuable message for kids in 2018, and I hope it finds its mark.

Nearly every step of the way, however, the film is let down by Jennifer Lee and Jeff Stockwell’s hamfisted script, and by Spencer Averick’s clunky editing. Wrinkle is episodic by nature, but the journey here is strangely devoid of tension; despite its relatively brief run time, the pacing languorous. Many in the cast seem to still be workshopping their parts, but the dialogue doesn’t do them any favors — if you have to cut to goofy reaction shots after every limp joke, you have a problem with your jokes, or your performers. Witherspoon in particular is weirdly miscast; as the most sarcastic of the Misses, I can’t help but think her scenes would have played better if she had switched parts with Mindy Kaling, whose own schtick becomes tiresome just in time for the film to toss it aside.

Oprah brings her standard inspirational gravitas (when she tells you you’re beautiful, you believe it) and is, on paper at least, as perfect a union of actor and role as one could dream, but she spends most of her screen time as a spectral giant physically disengaged from the action. Miller’s Calvin is another odd case: he has only one mode, a vaguely cloying earnestness, and though we’re told he’s selected for his “diplomacy,” he has no bearing at all on how events unfold. He’s just along for the ride, meanwhile making me uncomfortable with how close he stands to Meg. (He never goes in for a kiss, though, and for that we can all be grateful.)

Storm Reid is a real find, and has a bright future ahead of her; the hyper-articulate McCabe evokes Pierce Gagnon in Looper, but less murderous. I also really enjoyed the “Happy Medium,” the most lovable Zach Galifianakis has ever been, and Michael Peña’s cameo appearance on a Camazotz beach. The truth is that the ingredients are all here — a thematically and visually rich story of empowerment with a diverse cast and crew — which makes it all the more frustrating to watch it sputter in one unbalanced scene after another, when it should soar.

Ultimately, the film has less in common with modern blockbusters than with all-ages fantasies of yore like The Never-Ending Story, which, despite its “classic” tag, had its own share of cringe-worthiness marking an era when “It’s for the kids” was the only criteria needed. That unabashed sincerity is both this Wrinkle’s greatest strength, and weakness. There’s no denying the level of creativity on display, or the purity of DuVernay’s intentions. There’s nothing cynical about this film. And I wouldn’t call it “calculated,” either — just an open-hearted misfire. I’m truly glad she got to make the attempt. Now the real mark of Hollywood progress will be if she gets to try again, like all of the white male directors who are actually bad at their jobs.

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