I am convinced that middle school is the season of life which essentially defines a person’s adult identity. Think back and recall those days when you were between the ages of 11 and 14 (if you can–many adults seem unable to bring back memories of that season), with all of its emotions, awkwardness, questions, yearning, insecurity, humor, and passion. That young person–part kid, part adult–still resides in each of us somewhere. So the stories told about the middle school years are important to me, both as a film critic and a pastor-theologian passionate about youth ministry (I’ve even compiled a Letterboxd list of 50 films about early adolescence).
Thus, I went into Ava DuVernay’s cinematic adaptation of Madeline L’Engle’s classic novel, A Wrinkle in Time, with immense hope, despite the film’s poor critical reception. I had read about screenwriter Jennifer Lee’s choice to avoid the novel’s overtly Christian themes and ideas. Where the book wonderfully blended faith and reason with narrative gusto and imagination, this film adaptation mistakes glitter for glory, trite platitudes for transcendence. Like glitter, it’s a big sparkly mess: ostentatious, colorful, superficial, and frustrating.
The strongest scene in the entire film is its opening interaction between middle schooler Meg Murray (Storm Reid) and her scientist father (Chris Pine) as he describes both a scientific experiment and their family’s choice to adopt a little boy into their family, Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe). The way DuVernay shoots the scene and the paternal love imbued by Pine are richly intimate and authentic, eliciting tears in my eyes right from the start. However, as the film progresses, it repeatedly strives to squeeze the tears from its audience via emotional reunions and sweeping soundtrack, ultimately leaving me feeling more emotionally manipulated than genuinely moved. For all its intimations of acceptance and tolerance, the film treats its protagonist and audience as too unintelligent to keep up with the story. Different characters verbally describe Meg’s intelligence and Charles Wallace’s strangeness in odd narration, but the film doesn’t really allow Meg to demonstrate just how smart she can be. The narrative approach here is to tell instead of show, making the emotional beats and thematic messages so obvious as…well, glitter. So much glitter.
The glitter–both decorative and ideological–mainly stems from the trio of Mrs Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), Mrs Who (Mindy Kaling), and Mrs Which (Oprah Winfrey), three enigmatic and powerful beings who show up at the Murry’s front door, apparently at the beckoning of Mr. Murray who has been missing for four years. These three take the three children–Meg, Charles Wallace, and their neighborhood acquaintance Calvin (Levi Miller)–through a cosmic journey via tessering (the titular wrinkle in time) to save Mr. Murry and the universe from a dark, evil force known as The It. Over the course of their quest, Mrs Whatsit snarkily belittles Meg, Mrs Which spouts Oprah-esque aphorisms, and Mrs Who quotes “Hamilton” and Rumi whenever she’s not asleep. The three performances feel inert and underutilized, with the actresses typically standing near-motionless in whatever gaudy costume has manifested in their travels. Each transition is abrupt and confusing–we’re rarely sure as to why certain events happen, even less certain as to how characters have particular knowledge or abilities, making the pacing awkward and the narrative hard to follow. Indeed, the inevitable confrontation with The It is less creepy and unsettling as it is in the novel as it is simply unclear. Just as baffling is the discarding of the maternal alien Aunt Beast (although there is a brief glimpse of such alien creatures), as well as casting of Zach Galifianakis as the Happy Medium, a kindly female guide in the book–for all its apparent progressiveness, the choice to turn a jolly female wizard character into a glum white man with a man-bun feels decidedly off.
The presence of Oprah looms throughout Wrinkle. While not listed as a producer, she is the very first person listed in the credits, and her character is depicted as literally larger than everyone around her. The Disney message of Wrinkle is didactically obvious with every moment, from song choices to line readings: Believe in yourself. Be a warrior. You are perfect just the way you are. For example, the chorus playing over the end credits, DJ Khaled and Demi Lovato’s “I Believe” has the following lyrics: “Today, I saw a rainbow in the rain / It told me I can do anything / If I believe, I believe, I believe in me / I believe, I believe, I believe in me.” Wrinkle‘s message and aesthetic reminded me a great deal of Tomorrowland, another disappointing CGI-laden film from a director I love; both even feature similar scenes and camerawork in an open wheat field. Where in the novel, the three Mrs give Meg gifts which all amounted to agape love for others–with Mrs Who quoting a passage from 1 Corinthians about God choosing the foolish things of the world to shame the wise–the film version instead gives Meg her faults. While The It is overcome via love in both novel and film, it is unconditional, gracious love in the former and self-love in the latter. While telling a middle schooler that they just need to get over their insecurities and love themselves may sound, on the surface, like good advice, in reality it places enormous existential pressure on them–you have to define yourself. The underlying message is clear: you’re on your own, kid. While the novel celebrates the wisdom and strength of youth–something we’ve seen just this week with the March For Our Lives movement–this film may actually do more damage to young teens’ identities in its pressure to answer the question “who am I?” with absolute certainty and confidence, yet in isolation. A better, stronger film about a middle school girl growing into adulthood and figuring out her strengths is Anna Rose Holmer’s The Fits. Powerful, enigmatic, and affecting, this beautiful story of a young girl choosing between boxing and competitive dance even has glittery costumes. In The Fits, transcendence breaks through immanence and inspires us to become better people; in A Wrinkle in Time, Reese Witherspoon turns into a giant flying piece of lettuce.
IMDB Listing: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1620680/