Back in March Ava DuVernay, the genius director behind two of the decade’s best films in Selma and Middle of Nowhere, dropped a hundred million dollar blank cheque movie drenched in psychedelia, filled with her personal touches and starring a 50 foot Oprah. But audiences steered clear because of a low Rotten Tomatoes score?
A Wrinkle in Time is based on a children’s book by Madeleine L’Engle. Published in 1962, it is interested in the tensions of conformity, which it takes an abstract approach to representing; aspects of one’s self are manifested in a trio of witches determined to help 13-year-old Meg to self-actualise. On this premise hangs a remarkably esoteric journey into Meg’s psyche, coming to a Heideggerian conclusion about her oneness with the universe. It’s hokey, but the same messages are in The Tree of Life, and this is a lovely way for children to be introduced to such concepts.
DuVernay makes it all the more personal by race swapping the casting. As a mixed-race girl, Meg’s curly hair has been the subject of some debate but it solidly ties the themes of the novel with DuVernay’s depiction of a search for identity in modern America. Oprah is a literal Witch. The absent father theme is a thread that you will see in all of her films and the production of the film took place as DuVernay grieved for her stepfather. That weight, her determination to find solace, all ends up on the screen. These concerns are filtered through the Disney production house, because of course they are. But DuVernay has navigated Disney’s strict codes to create a deeply personal art that passes for popcorn fare with just as much creative success (if not the same return) as Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther
In a way, her strengths have killed the movie. DuVernay is a PR expert and managed to hype Wrinkle in terms of diversity, empowerment, representation. In Britain however, where the book is entirely unknown, that leaves audiences in the dark about what the film is actually about. Having watched it, I’m still not sure I know.
One scene has Reese Witherspoon turn into a giant piece of spinach (?) and fly around Oprah with Meg on her back, which turns into a battle against the elements when they come across a malevolent stormy cloud. Verbalising this makes little sense, because these sequences are sustained by feeling and visual momentum rather than tangible stakes. If you let yourself succumb, the film has its own logic and is charming, thrilling and occasionally transcendent. Its scenes are staged in an intimate, passionate way that makes the feelings of each moment vital even as the plot itself is somewhat meaningless. When Chris Pine holds his daughter, the moment is framed so only her head is visible, cradled in his loving arms. The primal tenderness of the moment is stunning alongside DuVernay’s stripped back psychedelia.
A Wrinkle in Time clearly isn’t perfect: the story is so foggy as to make the film incomprehensible at points. And the efforts at humour rarely hit because they are so at odds with the severely earnest tone that the film’s empowerment message takes. But the film’s ambition is so rapturously realised, with its heart so tenderly visible on its sleeve, that one cannot help but stick up for this film that is sure to become a children’s classic in years to come.