I'll get this out of the way: I haven't read Madeleine L'Engle's beloved science fiction adventure novel A Wrinkle in Time, but I have seen Ava DuVernay's heart-on-its-sleeve adaptation. No doubt there will be those who compare and contrast the book and the film, as L'Engle's words have touched the childhoods of so many, but I'm going in fresh. And while I cannot fold time and return to my youth to experience what it would be like to find comfort in the fictions of a woman who deeply understood children's fears and insecurities, I can say that as an adult, I was transported by DuVernay's adaptation to the mindset of my girlhood — embarrassing insecurities and all. This is not a cynic's film. It is, instead, unabashedly emotional.
At times, the choices DuVernay makes seem antithetical to the traditional big-budget adventure tale. Early in the film, she employs the vérité techniques she honed in low-budget indies — intimate, handheld cameras, lingering on a person's face before cutting to two hands touching, or maybe the back of someone's neck, followed by an extreme close-up on a profile. And forget the establishing shot orienting you in a place; in these first scenes, DuVernay is most concerned with the people, always ready to begin and end with them filling the frame.
Take the opening scene, where Mr. Murry (Chris Pine) is showing his daughter Meg (played at her youngest by Lyric Wilson) a physics experiment in his backyard laboratory. The tone between the two actors is light and easy, touched with improv, something you don't see in most $100 million movies but that here quickly grounds us in Meg's emotional state. When we see Meg four years later (now played by Storm Reid), she's mourning her disappeared father. Those first moments of realism prove crucial: The adaptation then must compress hundreds of pages into an hour and 49 minutes, sending Meg, her little adopted brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe) and her new friend Calvin (Levi Miller) on a Technicolor search-and-rescue mission through time.
Helping the children along the way are three near-divine beings of light, the astral-traveling Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey), Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling) and Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), who are adorned in any number of multicolored, puffy, flowy, metallic, knit, quilted and woven gowns. As always when she takes an acting role — most recently in 2017's The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks — Winfrey reminds us that she's not just a brand name. Jennifer Lee's script gives her one beautiful monologue to chew into, the kind of pep talk about fighting against the darkness that you may need on repeat these days.
Witherspoon's wry humor lands a few solid laughs. She's the self-important Mrs. Whatsit, playfully berating the low-confidence Meg like an older sister, needling into Meg's fears but out of love. Meg is a pressurized bottle just waiting to pop, afraid to trust in the world or herself. Mrs. Whatsit is rightly frustrated with this girl, and when Meg says those two annoying little words — “I can't” — Mrs. Whatsit cocks her head and replies with a parent's firm encouragement: “At least try.” The film sends the simultaneous messages that it's futile to coddle children but also that it's OK to feel the icky stuff that you feel, because even your weaknesses can be transformed into strengths.
And who would have thought in a film with this cast that the most cathartic moment would come from Zach Galifianakis? The comic plays the Happy Medium, a seer who forces Meg to find balance within herself so that she can open up to the world and locate her missing father. After a session channeling difficult truths about her father and why he left her to “shake hands with the universe,” Meg and the Happy Medium embrace, the hug truly moving. “It's OK to fear the answers,” he assures her, and you believe it.
But this film belongs to the kids, the ones in the audience and the film's stars. Little McCabe looks no older than 6 (he's actually 9), yet he's capable of playing both a character so pure of intention that he beams like a ray of sunshine — but also a character so callous that he seems to beam evil from his eyes. A horror director could make great use of him. Miller, who happened to star as a psychopathic villain in one of the funniest/scariest horror-comedies of 2017, Better Watch Out, proves here he can be the nice kid, playing a role usually reserved, in the movies, for the girl sidekick who must admire the boy hero's smarts and tenacity.
Reid, while a little unsteady in scenes where she must play joyful, nails the darker emotions, like the moment when Meg asks Mrs. Which if she could possibly come back through the tesseract that bends space and time as someone different, because she hates herself so much. Often, Calvin offers comments on Meg's hair, saying how nice it looks, and each time, Meg refuses to believe him. Meg, who is mixed-race, wears her black hair curly. I may be white, but I've listened to enough African-American women to understand the hurt and pain that can come from living in a world where European hair is seen as the desirable norm. That DuVernay uses her latest film to tell little girls that their natural hair is good and pretty is the kind of touch we'd expect from the activist filmmaker. That she does it in a tentpole blockbuster is revolutionary.