(2018—Director: Ava DuVernay)
— by Renard N. Bansale —
(out of 5 stars)
Potential spoilers below
For the past decade or so, director Ava DuVernay has honed her craft on documentaries and independent features while also promoting diversity and inclusion for minorities in the entertainment industry. Her efforts in the latter are admirable, but they do not substitute for the room for improvement she still may have in the former. 2014’s Selma, for example, was a pretty good historical drama with a fantastic lead performance by David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King, Jr. Would I have nominated it for the Best Picture Oscar (for which it did get nominated)? No, because I felt a couple dozen other films from that year hit harder with their stories. “#OscarsSoWhite” or not, I continue to disapprove of the sentiment that Ms. DuVernay’s solid historical drama was entitled to a showering of accolades.
Now, coming off her Oscar-nominated documentary 13th, Disney has hired Ms. DuVernay for their feature adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time, the Newbery Medal-winning 1962 children’s novel by Madeleine L’Engle. This makes Ms. DuVernay the first woman of color to direct a movie with a budget of $100 million or more. The intention was optimistic, but in all honesty, this gave me the same apprehension I get when Disney hires any indie-scale filmmaker for a big-budget extravaganza with close studio supervision. After two viewings, that apprehension proved correct.
Young Meg Murry (Storm Reid) and her little brother, Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe), have not seen their astrophysicist father, Dr. Alex Murry (Chris Pine), in five years. Dr. Murry had managed to exploit a tesseract to travel to a far-off planet. His absence, however, has taken a toll on his children and his physicist wife, Dr. Kate Murry (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). Three mysterious astral travelers—the ditsy Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), the quotation encyclopedia Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling), and the larger-than-life Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey)—interrupt the broken family’s depression, offering Meg and Charles Wallace a chance to find their father. Accompanied by Meg’s classmate Calvin O’Keefe (Levi Miller), the three kids join the astral travelers on an adventure that will test their will and courage.
For a film centering on empowerment and self-esteem amidst a universe-spanning journey, it perplexes and disappoints how the efforts of director Ava DuVernay and screenwriters Jennifer Lee and Jeff Stockwell result in a plodding and distant cinematic experience. Madeleine L’Engle’s 1962 novel remains a complex adventure of family-friendly science fiction with an admirable, if imperfect, incorporation of Judeo-Christian themes and references. Ms. DuVernay’s take, meanwhile, uses the Disney money hose to water down L’Engle’s novel into an unexciting shell that sadly replaces the Judeo-Christian themes and references with stale “love conquers all” and “have faith in yourself” platitudes. Writers Stockwell and Ms. Lee tack these onto a sci-fi scenario already pursued with a cerebral, soul-stirring flourish in 2014’s Interstellar.
While the thirteen-year-old Storm Reid gives a serviceable lead turn and the visual effects by Richard McBride and Nikos Kalaitzidis lend themselves to a few striking scenes, the standout element of A Wrinkle in Time is nine-year-old Deric McCabe as Charles Wallace Murry. McCabe may walk the line between precocious and bratty early on, but his character’s direction later in the movie ensures that discussions on the noteworthy child actor outings of 2018 will mention him. My favorite moment in A Wrinkle in Time is when Charles Wallace, subdued and possessed by evil, calls out Levi Miller’s Calvin for going on an adventure with him and his sister—two kids he knows only by face at school. It never fails to amuse me when films unintentionally glares towards its more useless parts. Such a shame Levi Miller numbers among those for Wrinkle, especially after leading Pan, director Joe Wright’s fantasy stumble from 2015. The older cast members also feel underused. Of the three astral travelers, Reese Witherspoon and her goofy spark somehow manage to outdo the established celebrity charisma of Oprah. Past these two, the story leaves scraps for poor Mindy Kaling and the other adult actors.
I hope that, after this ambitious and ultimately misguided detour into big-budget studio cinema, Ms. DuVernay will return to her indie and documentary roots. After all, I felt that indie writer-director David Lowery stumbled in 2016 with Disney’s modest, grounded, but fleeting reworking of Pete’s Dragon, before rebounding with A Ghost Story, which made my top ten list for 2017. The jump from indie to blockbuster filmmaking is never easy and not always successful, but Ms. DuVernay has the support and passion to hit the ground running again. As long as she learns from her experience working on A Wrinkle in Time and prioritizes bold filmmaking a bit more than the important issues she wants to incorporate into her stories, Ms. DuVernay will improve. I hope, then, that whatever she plans to offer next will be worth the wait.
(Parental Note: A Wrinkle in Time has been rated PG by the MPAA “for thematic elements and some peril”. It has also been rated PG by the BBFC for “mild threat” and rated A-II (Adults and older children) by the Catholic News Service for containing “occasional peril and possible momentary off-screen immodesty.”)
Renard N. Bansale once aspired to become an astronaut, before he found his passion in film discussion, criticism, conducting script-reading sessions of feature-film screenplays, and annual Oscar tracking. Hailing from Seattle, WA, Renard is currently pursuing his M.A. in Biblical Theology (Catechetical track) at JPCatholic after graduating from the school in 2016 with a B.S. in Communications Media (Emphasis in Screenwriting).
For more movie reviews by Renard, click here.