A Wrinkle in Time is a conventional film that dances the experimental tango between unrestrained imagination and drama. While it trips over itself, it’s hard not to root for it to be a classic. Adapted from the beloved Madeleine L’Engle book, A Wrinkle in Time tries to find footing as a feature film in league with The Wizard of Oz. With a resume of realism dramas like Middle of Nowhere and Selma, Ava DuVernay has dived into her first foray with the high-budgeted fantastical.
As with many fantasies, A Wrinkle in Time begins in the drabness of the normal world. A morose preteen Meg (Storm Reid) lives her life as a social outcast, coping with the disappearance of her scientist father (Chris Pine). His mysterious vanishing circulates around as tormenting mess of rumors. Is he wayward, did he desert his family or is he simply dead? The opening real world sequences apathetically feature a trope checklist. The leading heroine is bullied for being a freak? Check. She is blamed for outbursts toward provocative clique-girl bullies? Check. Adults dismiss her trauma? Check.
Then the normalcy dissipates. Meg’s younger adoptive brother, Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe), introduces her to outlandish human-passing but flamboyantly costumed entities who exist in her neighborhood: Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling) and the towering ringleader Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey). Turns out, these strange women, best likened to powerful fairies without wings or wands, know the truth about Meg’s father. She learns that her father traveled to a hidden and hazardous plane beyond her earth. With their sorta-fairy mentors, a classmate (Levi Miller) and her half-pint brother, she’s off to an adventure beyond her comfort zone across wondrous panoramas.
Although the journey does not take detours, it has trouble sticking to a path. I’m not saying A Wrinkle in Time required a visible Yellow Brick Road or that it doesn’t have the chops to throw random twists and turns, but it does threaten to go off in tangents. In one unnerving sequence, Meg and friends encounter the projection of a suburban landscape with the distorting rhythm of children dribbling a ball and housewives mundanely calling their children in for dinner. It’s splendidly psyching as an experience for both child and adult viewers, but it doesn’t serve much purpose, even if a suburban satire was intended. The eye-popping, bizarro-for-bizarro’s-sake sequences are hypnotic but don’t externalize the psychological journey.
All the elements, from even its hokey-sounding lines and off-kilter incidents, carry potential for a delightful classic that overcomes or embraces its inherent goofiness. But the execution can befuddle rather than charm. The direction and performances are confident in their theatricality but are in search of a way to make the material pop. The three mentor figures preach in maxims, but the screenwriters crack too many fortune cookies to sound enlightening to its audience. While some of the headscratching lines may be a carry-over from the source material, the onscreen delivery does not modulate into the final product.
On a brighter note, for all the hit-or-miss lines, there was rarely a point I doubted that the cast held their dialogue with reverence. The cast satisfies their archetypes with commitment. Reid holds the cumbersome task of vulnerability and brainy fortitude with an inner spark buried beneath her glum self-esteem. Winfrey’s delivery radiates with an Obi-Wan Kenobi warmth, especially with the “be a warrior” mantra. Even if it gets old, Kaling recites her borrowed proverbs with sereneness. For an otherwise flat giggly ditz, Witherspoon is a likable Glinda-esque pal. McCabe is quite a scene-stealer, playing his little-brother precociousness with restless believability for dialogue that could be grating. Lastly, Pine also encapsulates a guilt-ridden lost father, equals parts incautious about his understandable ambitions and committed to his children.
A Wrinkle in Time is for kids, and I mean “made for kids” in the supportive definition rather than the usual lazy and disparaging connotation that’s carelessly applied to more lukewarm family films. Refreshingly, the film is not so insecure to saturate itself with self-awareness to absolve itself from anticipated perceived faults. It has humble moral goals for children, but its execution has varying results. In one of the more spot-on expression of pathos, Mrs. Which transfers Meg a vision about her own earth — even glimpsing into vulnerabilities of the popular girl bully — to exposit how a sentient darkness magnifies the worst in humanity. This subdued scene hits the right notes on the relatability of humanity.
Other times, the film grapples with hitting the right human notes. By saving the world by talking down the demons, the heroine wins the day. In all its simplicity about the power of love and determination, the effort is unapologetically wholesome as expected in a Disney picture, though the lingering resonance is drowned out by uncurbed goofiness.
The resolution does yield warm fuzzies thanks to its earnest performances. As Meg comes to terms with “the gift of faults,” the visual rite of passage as she floats from the fantastical to the normal world emits an empowering coda for her coming-of-age. A Wrinkle in Time doesn’t always stick the landing, but I applaud it for shooting high.
Caroline Cao (@Maximinalist) is a queer Vietnamese-Houstonian Earthling surviving under the fickle weather of New York. When not angsting over her first poetry manuscript or a pilot screenplay about space samurais, she is cooking her own Chinese food instead of buying take-out and dreaming of winning Hamilton lotto tickets. Carol has lent her wit and pop culture love to Birth Movies Death, The Mary Sue, Film School Rejects and The Script Lab. She also runs a New York living blog and writing services.