Ava DuVernay was an unexpected choice to direct A Wrinkle in Time. Not just because in doing so she became the long-overdue first woman of colour to helm a big budget tentpole; but also because the source material of Madeleine L’Engle’s bonkers children’s novel seemed so far outside her wheelhouse. Suddenly, a director best-known for hard-hitting dramas excoriating America’s ugly history with racism was tasked with wrangling fantastical creatures, eccentric characters and the devine presence of Oprah Winfrey into a cosmos-hopping sci-fi extravaganza.
Perhaps that’s why, despite DuVernay throwing every shred of her creative razzmatazz at the screen, the resultant film is a muddled, mawkish mess that feels untouched by its director’s usually stirring talents.
Our heroine is Meg (Storm Reid), a gifted student who has drifted into a life a pre-teen rebellion and isolation in the four years since her scientist father (Chris Pine) vanished without a trace. Not even the efforts of her precocious little brother (Deric McCabe) or her infatuated classmate (Levi Miller) can drag her out of her malcontent, until the peculiar Mrs Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon) turns up to tell them that Meg’s father is alive and stranded across the universe after a botched experiment with a tesseract.
With the help of Mrs Whatsit’s equally uncanny celestials, Mrs Who (Mindy Kaling) and Mrs Which (Winfrey), the three kids tear across the cosmos in search of Meg’s father, only to become caught in the crosshairs of an evil being of unparalleled darkness who will test them all to their very limits.
DuVernay is undoubtedly at her most joyously inventive here. Wrinkle is infused with daft, off-the-wall humour, warm optimism and some truly wondrous visuals. Giant trees twist into the skies like verdant helium balloons. Towers of amber revolve and swivel, as if we’re watching an oversized game of CGI Screwball Scramble. A deeply disturbing suburb feels like it was ripped from a Tim Burton-directed version of The Handmaid’s Tale.
As astonishing as DuVernay’s boundless imagination is, though, you get the feeling it’s little more than an expensive distraction for the movie’s wayward plotting. DuVernay never quite settles on a comfortable tone, pinballing between saccharine family melodrama and quirky fantasy, while any sense of realism is swiftly swept up amid a melee of CGI-assisted landscapes and overblown set-pieces involving talking flowers and physics defying tornadoes.
It’s a shame, because in Storm Reid’s Meg, A Wrinkle in Time has a character worthy of more attention. Haunted by the disappearance of her father, Meg’s self-esteem is in tatters. She feels abandoned by his departure and obsesses over how her supposed flaws might have driven him away, consuming herself with crippling self-doubt. Reid sells such a complex, troubled psyche with an absorbingly soulful performance, while those around her flounder with a script that favours mawkish sentiment over real character development. And it feels like such a missed opportunity precisely because Meg is exactly the type of conflicted, empowering charcter that DuVernay would usually excel at exploring… when she’s not overwhelmed by the demands of a 10ft tall Oprah Winfrey.
Runtime: 109 mins (approx.)
Director: Ava DuVernay
Screenwriters: Jennifer Lee, Jeff Stockwell
Stars: Storm Reid, Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling