At a key point in the A Wrinkle in Time, awkward teenaged hero Meg Murry (Storm Reid) declares, “I’m messy and flawed but you still love me.” At that moment, she was speaking for me. Ava DuVernay’s adaptation of the beloved Madeleine L’Engle novel is a mess, and it has some significant flaws. But between its open-hearted sincerity and its psychedelic visuals, I love it anyway.
I know that won’t be everyone’s experience, especially those who grew up with the book (like I did). DuVernay doesn’t so much adapt the 1962 original as she translates it, changing some elements (like the racial make-up of the Murrys) and completely omitting others (specifically the book’s Christian worldview – more on that later). But what remains is so personal and affirming that I can’t help but go along with it.
The story more or less follows the original plot: Meg, along with her unnervingly intelligent brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe) and sensitive cool kid from school Calvin (Levi Miller), travel across space to rescue their missing scientist father (Chris Pine) from an evil force called The IT. Guiding them along the way are three supernatural figures: the childlike Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), the quotation-speaking bookworm Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling), and the wise and powerful Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey).
But DuVernay moves the story along that outline at a strange pace, lingering on the stuff she likes – such as a comic bit involving Zach Galifianakis as a seer called The Happy Medium – and then almost hand waiving past other points with “just so” explanations.
It’s fortunate, then, that she indulges in the movie’s best parts. Cinematographer Tobias A. Schliessler fills the worlds with colors, whether it be the idyllic Uriel, complete with sentient flowers, or the IT’s ever-changing homeworld Camazotz. DuVernay provides images to match, including Mrs. Whatsit’s transformation into a flying plant creature or a 20 foot Mrs. Which towering over a field. Paco Delgado’s costumes for the Mrs. Ws accentuate their hallucinatory glory, full of glitter and excessive design, but they never distract from the performances. The camera still catches moments like a comforting smile on Mrs. Which or a reassuring nose crinkle from Mrs. Who.
These reassurances are necessary to the story, as it’s all about Meg learning that she matters. When the Mrs. Ws appear, their message isn’t so much that she can fight evil like a superhero, but that her “faults” make her who she is and who she is wonderful. Images of Meg discovering her self-worth, floating secure in the knowledge that she is loved and worthy of love are powerfully moving and effective.
DuVernay carries over that theme from L’Engle’s book, but removes its Christian worldview along the way, which weakens the plot. L’Engle’s faith in a personified God lent a degree of intentionality to the story, giving it an It’s a Wonderful Life quality to it, as the Mrs. Ws were angels sent to show Meg that she was designed by a Creator who considered her a masterpiece, faults and all. She learns that her ability to love her faults and the faults of others dispels an evil called The Black Thing, and its order and homogony-obsessed servant IT.
In DuVernay’s translation, the Mrs. Ws are avatars of the universe, looking for “warriors” to fight the darkness with light. Thankfully, the warrior rhetoric never manifests in actual punching or killing, but it isn’t clear how self-love equates to warriorness. This fuzziness is most evident when Mrs. Which tries to affirm Meg’s self-worth, addressing all of the biological and physical accidents that had to happen to make her who she is. It’s supposed to work like Dr. Manhattan’s “everything is a miracle” speech from Watchmen, but ends up sounding like a platitude, a condescending pat on the head that a smart teen like Meg would surely shrug off.
But, as with all of the other unclear parts in the movie, the visuals and sincerity quickly makes up for what the explicit story lacks. And by the time we reach a colorful hugfest, it’s hard to complain that the film wasn’t more clear about how and why you should love. Just telling us to love is more than enough.