Undeniably, Ava DuVernay is a force to be reckoned with in the film industry. After solidifying her place as one of Hollywood’s most important visionaries through critically acclaimed, socially incisive films, including “Selma” and “13th,” DuVernay returns with a film unlike anything she’s done before — an adaptation of the beloved 1962 young adult novel by Madeleine L’Engle, “A Wrinkle in Time.”
The film is a visually enthralling, heartwarming but underwhelming adaptation, as DuVernay — the first Black woman to direct a film with a budget of more than $100 million — incorporates characters and themes from L’Engle’s novel into a modern setting. With its star-studded cast and $103 million production budget, the highly anticipated “A Wrinkle in Time” stumbles from a steadfast devotion to its source material. Still, as a modern sci-fi fantasy, the film offers plenty of takeaways for its intended younger audiences and remains an inspiring testament to the importance of maintaining faith in oneself despite moments of heartache and distress.
The film follows the teenage Meg Murry (Storm Reid) as she struggles to find her place among her peers after the disappearance of her father, Dr. Alex Murry (Chris Pine), a scientist who went missing while studying the universe’s dimensions of time and space.
One evening, Meg finds her younger brother, the spirited Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe), talking to a strange woman in her living room — the lively, glitter-brazen Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), who claims to hold some information about her father’s possible location. Meg is intrigued, but skeptical. After meeting the equally eccentric and poetic Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling) and the wise, calming force Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey), Meg sets out on a mission to find her father by traversing the universe’s dimensions with Charles Wallace and her friend Calvin (Levi Miller).
One of the most powerful elements of DuVernay’s modern adaptation is the film’s casting. Her vision of an inclusive world is a groundbreaking spin on the classic story — Reid’s character, a young biracial girl, is able to set and follow her own path to saving the universe. DuVernay further flips the script by casting Miller, a white actor, as Calvin to serve as sidekick to Meg; he affectionately follows her for most of the film, in awe of her bravery and intelligence.
The young actors shine, easily doing justice to DuVernay’s purposeful casting. Reid especially brings a surprising depth and maturity to her part, displaying Meg’s pain and detachment in the wake of her father’s disappearance as well as her undying allegiance and emotional attachment to Charles Wallace. “A Wrinkle in Time” largely depends on her performance, and Reid beautifully captures Meg’s many roles as a conflicted teenager, faithful daughter, protective older sister, loyal friend and defender of the universe.
Despite their visibility in the film’s marketing, the three big names playing Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which don’t bring anything new to their roles. While Witherspoon, Kaling and Winfrey serve as dazzling, ethereal figures who initially guide Meg on her quest, they play exaggerated versions of their own real-life celebrity personas. Unlike the charming and emotionally charged performances of the film’s child actors, three of the film’s biggest stars contribute little to DuVernay’s adaptation.
The film further flounders in the structure of its script and delivery of dialogue, both of which feel literary to a fault. Just like the novel, the film is structured as a series of encounters and events rather than a seamless narrative; to some extent, DuVernay sacrifices character development to dramatize more of the novel’s plot. Moreover, all of the lines recited by characters sound as if they were intended to be read from a page rather than heard out loud, seeming contrived and bookish rather than grounded in reality.
Despite its hiccups, “A Wrinkle in Time” finds benefits from its literary qualities. Gorgeous visual effects bring life to L’Engle’s original vision, as each dimension of time and space has a distinct, vibrant aesthetic. The visual magnificence, supplemented by DuVernay’s vision of inclusivity, makes “A Wrinkle in Time” an inspiring, exhilarating family feature.
“A Wrinkle in Time” opens tonight at UA Berkeley 7.
Anagha Komaragiri covers film. Contact her at [email protected].