Film Forward

Ava DuVernay’s Take On ‘A Wrinkle In Time’ Adds Texture And Layers To The Classic Story

"Ava DuVernay's 'A Wrinkle in Time' is more than a movie."

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Title: A Wrinkle in Time (2018)
Director: Ava DuVernay 👩🏽🇺🇸
Writers: Original book by Madeleine L'Engle 👩🏼🇺🇸, screenplay by Jennifer Lee 👩🏼🇺🇸 and Jeff Stockwell 👨🏼🇺🇸

Reviewed by Dana 👩🏼🇺🇸


Technical: 4.25/5

The way that Ava DuVernay uses light is a metaphor for what she stands for, both as a director and as an individual. Rather than cloaking frames in manufactured mystery and despair, her work brings out the beauty of the world. In A Wrinkle in Time, every scene is drenched in color with details rich enough for you to reach through the screen and run a hand over the rocks of the Happy Medium's cave, or to touch the silky fabric of Mrs. Whatsit's dress. Even in its thematically dark moments, such as when the film's heroine finds herself at the center of the It — the evil, amorphous scourge of the universe — glowing slivers and bright sparks remind viewers that all is not lost.

It's unabashedly a film for kids, and while adults are perfectly welcome, there are no sly winks or double entendres meant to apologize to parents for making them sit through a children's movie. DuVernay's focus is her young audience and she speaks to them directly, though there's an awareness of what A Wrinkle in Time means to an older generation, whose worn copies of Madeleine L'Engle's fantasy novel were an escape from personal demons. Meg — played by Storm Reid in DuVernay's film — stands as a symbol for anyone who has ever been mocked for what makes them different, whether their first brush with A Wrinkle in Time came during its 1962 publication or its 2018 film adaptation.

A Wrinkle in Time was never going to be a universally beloved film. Rather than targeting a popular majority, DuVernay made a movie for those who needed it the most. The introduction she gives prior to the film's start has been described as unnecessary and weird, and it didn't strike me until later that the point of it wasn't actually to introduce the movie, but to introduce a Black, female face to young viewers who had never considered the possibility that someone who looked like them could make a movie.

The film isn't perfect, and as much as I loved it, I have to admit that the flying leaf was weird. Yet some of the complaints appear to have been written by critics who weren't paying too much attention. A Vox review contends that Meg's knowledge of math and science was reduced to a mention of "some physics stuff," when in fact concrete references are made to fluid mechanics, topological order, and fractal dimensions — all areas of study which exist in real life. And while the visual unfolding of time is a bit clunky, the task itself is tricky without a flying police box or Delorean to conveniently transport its heroes through time and space.

DuVernay's film tries to do justice to a book that simply cannot be translated from imagination to reality. Whether or not it succeeds depends on who's watching.

Gender: 5/5
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? YES Assessment: 78% of creative decision-makers were female.

L'Engle's book was female-centric to begin with, particularly notable for its release over 50 years ago. DuVernay builds upon her characters and made them at once reflective of the world we now live in and of the extraordinary icons larger than the movie itself. She cast the trio of Mrs. deliberately, recognizing not only how they would embody the characters, but the power each held in their own right and whose likenesses could be made into dolls and posters bearing the movie's title while conveying something larger than the role. 

Mindy Kaling, with The Mindy Project, took the precedent of the single girl in the workplace set by The Mary Tyler Moore Show to a place not previously explored — one with a creator and star whose brown skin, curvy figure, and avowed feminism were acknowledged and celebrated. As Mrs. Who, she quotes an eclectic array of sources, including lyrics from Lin-Manuel Miranda's Hamilton, which itself turns a story dominated by wWhite, male voices on its head.

Reese Witherspoon, whose body of work goes far beyond one role and yet will always be Elle Woods to my generation of Legally Blonde (2001) fans, has firmly established her status as a producer and advocate of women's rights. As the flighty, fanciful Mrs. Whatsit, she gives Meg the gift of her own flaws. It is a callback of sorts to Elle, whose glaring differences from her peers became the basis of her success and virtue as an ally.

And finally, there is Oprah, as the literally larger-than-life Mrs. Which, champion of Meg's self-worth and oracle of her journey — a role fitting for someone whose name is all but synonymous with joy and acceptance, and whose hugs are the stuff of legend.

Yet it is Storm Reid's Meg who truly turns A Wrinkle in Time from fantasy to feminism. We see her at the film's start enchanted by science and math, fields that woefully underrepresent women. Meg's deep understanding of physics is integral to her character, leaving her friend Calvin (Levi Miller) awestruck as he tags along on her adventure and later proving crucial in her mission to rescue her father.

At the outset of her journey, Meg's insecurities are on display as she hopes aloud that she might return from her journey as someone else entirely. Oprah's Mrs. Which gently reminds her that she is valuable as herself, a truth Meg comes to understand and embrace when the It tries to tempt her to the darkness, offering her the chance to be transformed into a version whose clothes and hair resemble the style of the popular girls who taunt her at school. Instead, Meg, in a transformative moment, chooses to remain true to herself.

One significant change from the book is the gender of the Happy Medium, who is female in the source material but played by Zach Galafanakis in the film. It seems a strange choice, at first glance, to insert a man — a White man, at that — into a role written for a woman, given everything that the story and its director champion. But the way in which Galafanakis plays the part is a departure from how men are typically depicted in children's movies. The Happy Medium empathetically weeps with Meg, encourages her gently, and even physically cradles her as he places her on a more stable rock. The theme of the Happy Medium is balance, and his character reflects an evolved take on gender, blending feminine and masculine qualities in a way that rejects toxic masculinity.

Another shift from the book is Calvin, who L'Engle described as "the boy that we all, all us girls want to meet" and who writes the relationship between Calvin and Meg as one of young love. She also gave Calvin more of a backstory, one in which he is poor, popular, neglected by his parents, and capable of communicating telepathically with Meg. DuVernay's film does suggest that Calvin is at least well liked and shows Calvin's father berating him for not doing well enough on a test, but along with eschewing telepathy, DuVernay's version keeps the relationship between Meg and Calvin entirely platonic. This affirms that boys and girls can simply be friends and, in addition, refrains from casting heterosexuality as a default or a given — a normative setting that so many children's movies are guilty of employing. These tweaks broaden the spectrum of viewers who can see themselves in Meg, or in Calvin, and they also avoid tying Meg's self-validation with external, romantic validation.

Race: 5/5 Assessment: 44% of creative decision-makers were POC.

Intersectionality is integral to DuVernay's work, and she decided from the outset that she "wanted Meg to have brown skin, and the three Mrs. to be 'black, white and someone who wasn't either,' as well as different sizes, faiths and age."  

In interviews and on social media, DuVernay makes it clear that she wanted to make a film for little girls who had few opportunities to see themselves on the big screen — girls like a young Mindy Kaling, who "loved science fiction and fantasy growing up" but felt "it was a genre that largely did not love me back." In that same press conference, Kaling added that being a part of A Wrinkle in Time made her "finally feel welcomed with open arms to something that has ignored me completely," a sentiment echoed by dozens of Twitter users whom DuVernay retweeted, giving the impression that critical acclaim and box office returns were less her focus than gifting viewers with a chance to see a heroine in their own likeness.

Rather than forcing an explicit acknowledgment of race or faith into the dialogue, the movie demonstrates a deeper understanding of race through coding. For example, DuVernay takes the textual description of Meg's hair — "unmanageable, unremarkable, and paling in comparison to her mother's more glamorous locks" — and adds new depth by writing a biracial character with natural, curly hair. When Calvin, who is White, remarks on how much he likes her hair, audiences can feel the power behind the sentiment. Yet Calvin never asks to touch it, indicating that he respects Meg as a person and not as some oddity.

In addition to the characters of Meg and the three Mrs., Meg's family unit is itself a statement on inclusivity. She has a White father (Chris Pine), a biracial mother (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), and an adopted younger brother played by Deric McCabe, who is part Filipino. Among the scenes the young protagonists face on Camazotz, the planet where the It resides, is a suburban cul-de-sac populated by children of varied races bouncing red balls in eerie synchronicity. Out of the cookie-cutter houses walk a series of Stepford-looking mothers whose skin colors and outfits perfectly match their respective children. When Bellamy Young, sporting a pink dress and a smile that is simultaneously lovely and terrifying, offers the trio something to eat, they decline and leave as the perfect houses in the perfect neighborhood fold in on themselves, as if to say that idyllic, perfect families do not actually exist. Ultimately, it's the patchwork family one she returns to and reunites that is just right.

Mediaversity Grade: A 4.75/5

Ava DuVernay's A Wrinkle in Time is more than a movie. It's a love letter to little girls who have never seen a heroine who looks like them; who don't feel like they're enough; or who hang back for fear of the unknown. It's a salve for the grown-ups who have yet to put their childhood insecurities and traumas to bed, who continue to battle with darkness on a daily basis. And it's a tribute to the book, and what it meant to so many young readers.

The weight of expectation is perhaps why the film has not been made for so long, and DuVernay's interpretation might well be a disappointment to moviegoers who expect an exact rendering of a childhood favorite, or who are ambivalent to the ethos behind the film.

Movies have conditioned adults to reject hope and color — not only racial color, but rich blues and bright greens and shimmering golds not masked by heavy-handed chiaroscuro. Some who fancy themselves cinephiles will likely scoff at that open embrace of color and overlook, or even criticize, the powerful message of inclusion that DuVernay has embedded in every frame.

But taken as a whole, A Wrinkle in Time is a masterpiece brimming with self-acceptance and optimism and its impact won't be fully realized until the little girls in the audience come of age and become scientists and executives, with the confidence and drive to invent tesseracts of their own.

Cover image via Disney

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