Often when people say “it’s for kids”, it’s an excuse for a film being of poor quality and therefore “only kids would like it”. But in the case of A Wrinkle in Time, when I say it’s for kids, I mean just that. It’s a film directly and urgently about the emotional needs of children. A film that filters all the joys and challenges of the world through a child’s eyes. So rarely do filmmakers allow a film to be this earnestly youthful and emotional. A Wrinkle in Time is a film that reaches out of the screen and pats the heads of its young viewers. It’s a film that loves children and is untroubled by any notion that the love may not be returned.
The film begins with a warm display of parental love. Director Ava DuVernay’s preference for close-ups and mild shaky cam gives a personal and lived-in feeling to the flashback with Meg (Storm Reid) and her father Dr. Alex Murray (Chris Pine). The score tugs at our heartstrings as we witness the heartfelt joy and unconditional love between father and daughter. When we see the folded paper (in the style of a schoolyard “fortune teller”) and hear the phrase “not gone, just unfolded” we know immediately that we’re being given one of the themes of the film. Love isn’t just about what a person can readily see–they need to see with their heart and mind as well.
We are told with quick exposition that Dr. Murray went missing shortly after the adoption of Meg’s brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe). He’s been gone four years, leaving Meg and her mother Dr. Kate Murray (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) emotionally distraught. Charles Wallace, who was too young to know his father before he left, is the most emotionally collected member of the family. After this initial information, the film unfolds at a breakneck speed. Once Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon) arrives the challenge of the film becomes clear: Using what her father has taught her, Meg must search across dimensions to find him. Using physics knowledge and a fascinating process called “tessering”, Meg must save her father and face off with an entity known as The It.
The universe can be scary. And what could be scarier than facing off against its vastness to find your parent? If you are taught to believe that adults have all the answers, how could you possibly solve a problem that adults couldn’t? That is only a portion of the internal challenges Meg must overcome. In the exposition chunk of the film, everyone around Meg seems to be telling her (verbally and nonverbally) to give up hope. They see her devotion to her father is an excuse to act out and close herself off from the world. But as the film progresses it shows us that Meg’s hope for her father is an admirable quality. It’s her battle with low self-esteem and pessimism that is really holding her back.
A Wrinkle in Time is staunchly anti-pessimism. It’s a film that takes the time to show children there is a difference between approaching the world with caution and expecting the worst out of it. Meg’s guides (Mindy Kaling, Reese Witherspoon, Oprah Winfrey) teach her how to breathe, assess situations and respond to them with intelligence, courage, and hope for the best possible outcome. They do this by reminding her that the universe is not indifferent. There are people who are caring and empathetic, and those qualities are the most heroic. Being in touch with your feelings and unafraid to love others is what transforms Meg into a “warrior”.
Storm Reid gives a very understated performance as Meg. She rarely smiles and often keeps her eyes glued to the ground–especially when given a compliment. We can feel how much she dislikes her body in her movements. Every motion is slight and unsure, even in an early scene when she hurts another kid on the playground. The action juts forth from her in a stiff manner. Her anger is involuntary–she doesn’t want to feel any emotions and resents being seen as a person who can be hurt. Reid portrays Meg’s journey so quietly, and yet you can feel it in every frame. We watch Meg grow right before our eyes from a kid who closes herself off emotionally and lashes out violently, into a caring young woman who is learning how to live openly and fearlessly. It warmed my heart to see.
Levi Miller is charming and charismatic as Meg’s love interest Calvin O’Keefe. His kind, easy going nature compliments Meg’s sullen introversion. Calvin is gentle and patient enough to see all the beauty and intelligence in Meg. What he wants the most is for Meg to see herself the way he sees her. His intentions alone make him one of the most likable love interest in a children’s film in recent memory. He felt like an older, wiser Thomas J. (of My Girl).
Rounding out the cast of kids is young Deric McCabe as Charles Wallace. Where to begin. McCabe demonstrates range and a level of sophistication that I was frankly in awe of. For most of the film, he is playing a character that has been popularized and somewhat run into the ground by indie cinema–the precocious genius child. Then the third act kicks in and McCabe is asked to say some of the cruelest things I’ve ever seen a child say to his sibling onscreen. It goes beyond the prototypical “bite me” animosity. Charles Wallace goes for the jugular in these final scenes, and it’s almost frightening.
In one of the most upsetting scenes of the third act, Meg is face to face with her “perfect self”. But of course, that image isn’t perfect. It’s the image she created in her mind as a response to her insecurity. And this image displays insecurities that many black girls (and black women) have. Meg’s “perfect self” has straightened hair, contact lenses and “trendy” clothes. The image looks much closer to Veronica Kiley (Rowan Blanchard), a girl who picks on her in school. I remember being young and wanting perfectly straight, long hair. I remember wanting contacts as well, but my prescription was always too strong for that to happen. There have been many narratives about young girls changing themselves to become popular, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a young girl face off so directly with the image she thinks she wants. It was unsettling and somewhat painful to witness.
I’m very thankful for the Misses, who often gave the film levity. Mrs. Whatsit is a character made for Reese Witherspoon. Even though she’s playing an old being, her bubbliness and impatience with Meg are entertainingly bratty and youthful. But my favorite of Meg’s guardians by far is Mrs. Who, played by Mindy Kaling. It’s a challenge playing a character who communicates by reciting iconic quotes. But I would argue that is not her primary form of communication. Kaling emanates warmth in her performance. She is the den mother of the group–full of encouraging smiles and bright, observant eyes. Kaling delivers the quotes with loving intention. Mrs. Who is such an interesting character to nudge a bit-part wonder like Kaling closer to the forefront of big box office filmmaking. I can’t wait to see her star in a film all her own.
I wasn’t as distracted as other critics seemed to be by Oprah Winfrey’s performance as Mrs. Which. It seems like critics, especially white critics, like to conveniently forget that Oprah Winfrey is one of the most accomplished actresses of our time. She has given honest, emotional performances on the large and small screen. I suppose the criticism is that her public persona has grown so large that it is difficult to see her as a character anymore. I disagree. I see Oprah as a performer, and I judge each performance on its own merits. Her performance as Mrs. Which services the plot just fine. I never read the book, so I am unsure if her onscreen rendering of the character is faithful. I took her performance at face value and accepted the nature of her character as canon.
Oh, and one more thing: Oprah’s public persona is only immediately recognizable to adults. Not kids. You remember kids, right? They’re the target audience for this film.
Watching A Wrinkle in Time, I couldn’t help but think of my three young sisters. I live far away from them and miss them terribly. Whenever I go see a children’s film, I imagine they’re with me. Seeing a piece of media so invested in the self-esteem of young black girls moved me to tears. Whenever a character encouraged Meg, I couldn’t help but think about what it would be like if my sisters had that same encouragement. That same validation that they were smart enough to not only succeed but take care of the people they love. I don’t care about how this film does at the box office. All I care about is how the film makes children feel. I really hope they like it.
I entered A Wrinkle in Time with an open heart, and when I left it was full.