'A Wrinkle In Time' Review: Ava DuVernay Delivers A Unique And Admirable Mess

Disney's A Wrinkle in Time represents a long-overdue milestone being passed. The fact that the film's director, Ava DuVernay of Selma and 13th, is the first woman of color to helm a Hollywood film with a budget over $100 million is remarkable; that it took the industry until 2018 to allow this barrier to be broken is unforgivable. But A Wrinkle in Time, leaving aside a marketing campaign that portends a new mega-bucks franchise, is a surprising, distinctive, sometimes mawkish, sometimes emotionally wrenching, and all-over-the-place journey. While the film is not always satisfying, its ambitions are winning enough.

Based on the Madeleine L'Engle novel, Wrinkle introduces us to awkward 12-year old Meg Murry (Storm Reid). Meg is an outcast at her school, belittled by a mean-girl bully and harangued by her principal for squandering her potential. Meg's troubles start at home, where she, her adopted brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe), and her scientist mother Kate (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) try to get by without her mysteriously missing father (Chris Pine, the best of the Hollywood Chrises), a fellow scientist. One dark and stormy night, the Murrys are visited by an odd friend of Charles Wallace's, Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon). The daffy-seeming woman soon invites him, Meg, and her schoolmate Calvin (Levi Miller) on a journey through time and space to find Meg's father, accompanied by two other beatifically odd women, Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling) and Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey). The journey pushes Meg to the emotional brink, as she's forced to face the darkness within herself and the darkness stretching across the universe.

A Wrinkle in Time is both very grand and very internal in scope, with a climax that's literally cerebral. Though some of the L'Engle book translates easily to the big screen, much of the content has been reasonably branded unfilmable. DuVernay and screenwriters Jennifer Lee and Jeff Stockwell have leaned into the challenge as opposed to shying away. Some elements of the book have either been redesigned or jettisoned entirely, largely for good reason. For example, Mrs. Which, in the book, doesn't manifest physically, but when Oprah Winfrey is cast in a big-budget movie, you are going to see Oprah Winfrey in the flesh. However, some of what makes A Wrinkle in Time so distinctive on the page doesn't make a logical or successful jump to the big screen; Mrs. Who, both in the book and the film, speaks largely by quoting different pieces of culture and literature. It doesn't really work on the page, and it absolutely falters on the big screen. (Kaling, ebullient and charming as usual, does her best, but cannot make even her final, groan-inducing reference work.)

But what does work in A Wrinkle in Time often works quite marvelously. Reid has appeared in a handful of other movies and TV shows, but she has been given a star-making role with Meg. The emotional core of the story rests with Meg, and Reid shoulders the burden quite capably. Meg is plagued by, among other things, self-doubt, which isn't always easy to play or compelling to watch; Reid doesn't falter in portraying Meg's crippling lack of self-worth, however. And her big emotional moment is surprisingly raw, a counterpoint to the fantastical elements that make up the foundation of the film.

The three big names here do their best with sometimes impossibly stilted material — Witherspoon, as the chatty Mrs. Whatsit, is the standout. However, they, along with Pine, Mbatha-Raw, and Zach Galifianakis (as the Happy Medium) all exist as support for the three main kid characters. Reid delivers the best performance, although both Miller and McCabe try their best with characters who have only been slightly fleshed out from how L'Engle wrote them. Still, once the three kids are set on a specific mission and the three Mrs. are off-screen for an extended period of time, the film is at its strongest.

What is perhaps most striking about A Wrinkle in Time are its technical elements. Not all of the effects work as intended— the famous scene where Meg, Calvin, and Charles Wallace are confronted with a suburban neighborhood where each house and its denizens all act in the same robotically conformist fashion has painfully noticeable green-screen, for example. But DuVernay, along with cinematographer Tobias Schliessler and editor Spencer Averick, aim for something unique in the framing and cutting of many sequences and shots. There's an off-kilter, claustrophobic and hemmed-in quality to Wrinkle; where other big-budget films might open up, the shots and pacing here feel deliberately disjointed and off-center. Once Meg and the others travel to other planets to rescue her dad, it's almost cruel for the filmmakers to not give a bigger sense of scope via wide shots. But even if the gambit doesn't always work, its very existence here is impressive.

There are some scenes in A Wrinkle in Time that run the gamut of emotion, leaping from feeling transcendent to awkward to painful to fascinating in the span of a minute or two. The film is undeniably flawed and messy, but there is a strong, passionate sense of heartbreak at its core, and the underlying message of hope and love manages to be both corny and aspirational. For all of its heady ideas, A Wrinkle in Time succeeds emotionally. For all its flaws, it has a sterling lead performance, some unexpectedly resonant images, and an unerring sense of the woman behind the camera bringing this all to life. A Wrinkle in Time may be messy, but in a uniquely admirable way.

/Film Rating: 7.5 out of 10