Before the screening of A Wrinkle in Time I attended, the women on either side of me were musing about how the Madeleine L’Engle book was their favorite when they were twelve. The film is a bold, messy adaptation of the classic novel, but for a new generation of twelve-year-olds, it could prove to be a similar touchstone.
This is hardly a passive, by-the-numbers checklist of plot points, the fate of most YA books translated to the big screen. Following Selma and 13th, director Ava DuVernay saturates the film with colorful costumes, locations, and effects, drawing from multiple cultures and eras. Sequined eyebrows, turquoise suits, caverns of amber and a creature like a flying carpet by way of a lily pad—even the evil conformist planet has sun-colored suburbs and a lovely day at the beach. Expect fans to be dressing up as these characters for comic conventions and Halloween.
The film also deals with raw, dark emotions that most children’s stories shy away from. Protagonist Meg Murry (newcomer Storm Reid, in what should be a star-making performance) is a hostile, depressed, self-loathing girl, filled with grief and uncertainty over the disappearance of her scientist father (a better-than-usual Chris Pine). On the anniversary of his disappearance, Meg’s gifted younger brother, Charles Wallace (another talented newcomer, Deric McCabe, who is very good at conveying the kind of joyous enthusiasm many label as “weird”), guides Meg and a classmate (Levi Miller) to a trio of cosmic beings, played by a chipper Reese Witherspoon, a reserved Mindy Kaling, and Oprah Winfrey, finally ascended to full-on godhood.
The ensuing journey across the universe suffers in places from trying to follow the structure of the book, where the human characters are often more passive observers than active protagonists, while also fitting in DuVernay’s flourishes. My notes from the screening included several scribbles of “They cut that from the book!” and “They didn’t need to include that part from the book.” It’s superior to the 2004 made-for-TV version, which was faithful to the plot but drained the book of its poetry, but DuVernay sometimes centers the poetry at the expense of the plot.
But there’s an undeniable emotional power in the story and performances. It’s a tale about feeling abandoned and inferior, like a failure, and some of the details are particularly astringent, especially a running point about Meg’s curly, messy hair. Its biggest lesson isn’t about overcoming flaws but about learning to embrace them and feel good about who you are. People who use “snowflakes” as an insult will absolutely hate A Wrinkle in Time, but it might be a film young people have needed for decades.
A Wrinkle in Time has many factions to please—devotees of the original novel, moviegoers expecting a lot from DuVernay’s biggest Hollywood project yet, kids who don’t care about all that and just want an adventure movie. It will likely inspire a level of debate, frustration, and analysis that studio films marketed to kids seldom do. Most important is what it will mean for girls like Meg Murry. In some ways, A Wrinkle in Time is its own vision, distinct from the book. But with its diverse cast and sharp perspective, it might prove to be a classic for the twelve-year-olds of today the same way the novel was for my seatmates fifty years ago.