As a child reader of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, muddling through its contemplation of the space-time continuum, I sometimes had trouble parsing verifiable fact from wild invention (let’s just say science wasn’t my jam). But I returned to the book again and again because of its heroine, the preteen Meg Murry, a self-described oddball, messy and angry and unsure of herself. That much was relatable. Still, in adapting L’Engle’s beloved 1962 book to the screen, I wonder if the filmmakers haven’t gone too far in servicing a viewer, well, like me, advancing relatability over the book’s more challenging ideas, and striking a note of tender reassurance that never wavers. No matter the peril movie Meg may find herself in, there are ready affirmations from family and friends, encouraging hugs, a calming yoga pose to help center her. Put another way: Can a film have too good of intentions?
The opening act, I’m sorry to report, is a mess. A saccharine prologue introduces the loving family unit that is the Murry family – Mom (Mbatha-Raw) and Dad (Pine), both scientists, young Meg (Reid), and the baby of the family, Charles Wallace (McCabe), who is adopted on the same day their father goes missing. Four years later, Charles Wallace has blossomed into a brilliant 5-year-old with an impressive command of SAT words, while Meg is a pariah, bullied at school and falling behind in her classes. A straightforward-enough scene of Meg in the principal’s office is overcomplicated with a half-dozen camera setups, here hovering behind a chair, there jolting to extreme close-up (very extreme in IMAX). Maybe director Ava DuVernay (Selma, Netflix doc 13th) meant for the overexcited camerawork to mimic Meg’s internal agitation, but I longed for a more grounded beginning to a story that will take flight soon enough.
No, “flight” isn’t the right word, not to explain how Meg, Charles Wallace, and their new friend, Calvin (Miller), hopscotch through the universe once they make the acquaintance of Mrs. Whatsit (Witherspoon), Mrs. Who (Kaling), and Mrs. Which (Winfrey), sort of galactic do-gooders aiding the kids in their quest to save Mr. Murry from his imprisonment on a troubled planet. “Quest” isn’t quite right, either; that implies some clarity to the mission, a set of rules, an understanding of the tools available. Instead, the script, by Jennifer Lee and Jeff Stockwell, abruptly plunks the characters down in ever more fantastical settings and seems to throw up its hands, as curious to see what happens next as we are.
That curiosity abides – I was never not interested – and is at times richly rewarded, with some inspired visuals (Extraterrestrial, gossiping flowers! Those divine robes bedecking Mrs. Whatsit, Who, and Which!) and the powerful gut-punch of a child leaking tears for her lost father. Reid is a real find – no-nonsense but still, yes, relatable in her self-doubt and tentative connection with Miller, another able young performer. Rooting for Reid’s Meg on her way to self-actualization is easy. We’re already in her pocket; the filmmakers didn’t need to gild the lily with so many uplifts and attagirls.
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