It’s not every day you have to say “no” to meeting Ava DuVernay.
Having a full-time day job means I do have to decline quite a few of the invitations I get, but this one really hurt. And I was honestly really excited about seeing the film. Luckily, I had the perfect stand-in up my sleeve: web series whizz, producer, actor and writer Rochelle Dancel, who attended a roundtable with Ava and A Wrinkle in Time’s lead actress, 14yo Storm Reid.
Rochelle was all set to guest post a film review here too, when another wonderful friend, blogging powerhouse Vicki of Honest Mum, asked me if I’d like to stand in for her husband at the premiere of the film, along with stylist Lauren Jobling and the highly motivating Lucy Hird. Um, YES? Best of all, we’d get to hear Ava and all the main cast (including ZOMG OPRAH) speak at a Q&A beforehand and I not-so-quietly died inside with happiness.
So this post, while containing a film review, is a little different. We’ll look at our thoughts going in, what we thought of the film itself, and what we learned from the cast and director – so if you’re just looking for film info, head for the middle bits. No spoilers.
A culture shift
RD: Admittedly, I was a little bit apprehensive about going to see this. I am clearly not the target audience, and I don’t have kids. So the lens I naturally had through which to watch this was borne from everything I’d read about it: strong female leads, directed by one of only a handful of women to have a $100m+ budget and, in the week I saw it, the first time two films helmed by African-American directors had the number 1 and 2 spots in the US box office (shoutout Black Panther). I think it’s very difficult not to consider this film in the current social and political climate, which I’m sure also had a part to play in the creative changes they made from the book e.g. the decision to create a blended family with adopted children from different ethnic backgrounds. But it all works. Regardless, I invite any grown-ups going to see it to leave all of that at the door, and bring their younger, teenage selves into the theatre.
AG: I’m pretty much fully in touch with my inner child – potentially more than my sensitive 7yo is. If I didn’t love L’Engle’s source material – and I’m afraid I didn’t – I put this down to being
30 years a little too old when I read it, but that hadn’t stopped me being really excited to see the film. I’ll come back to the Q&A I saw directly before in a moment, but what really framed the viewing for me was the DuVernay asked everyone in the audience aged 6-16 to stand up. And then told them specifically that this film was for them, and invited the rest of us to put ourselves in their shoes. Sometimes it can feel like saying “this was made for kids” is seen as negative – or it actively excludes adults from enjoying it – but I actually prefer for films to know who they’re for. For example, my daughter and I both enjoyed Inside Out at the time, but neither of us have wanted to watch it again since because the more we look back at it the less we know what it’s for; she found it a bit long-winded for kids, I found it a bit basic for adults.
A brief history of A Wrinkle in Time
Based on a much-loved children’s novel from Madeleine L’Engle, A Wrinkle in Time is the story of Meg Murry, whose parents are notable physicists – but whose ambitious work is greeted with incredulity when it seems to go too far. Meg’s father disappears in the course of his research, and for four years his family – Meg, her mother and her brother, Charles Wallace – know nothing of how or why, making Meg angry and closed off. Just as it looks as if she’ll have to accept he’s never coming back, a trio of outlandish guides show up to suggest there could still be hope of unravelling the mystery and saving the day – if Meg can only find the strength in herself.
A few of our favourite things
RD: My favourite thing about this film is that our lead character isn’t a superhero: she doesn’t have to transform to be anything superhuman to do anything over and above what she has previously perceived herself to be. She’s perfect exactly as she is, flaws and all, and I think that’s a major point of difference from other films that may be thrown into the same category, especially for young people.
AG: Yes! I would have killed for a female lead that was kind of nerdy when I was a kid. But even more for a girl who wears glasses and can’t see without them and doesn’t have to remove them to be ‘beautiful’. I know that’s very specific, but seriously. It’s so rare that the removal of glasses to reveal physical beauty has become a trope. Meg’s physical appearance is almost entirely irrelevant except in terms of her being asked to accept herself as she is.
I’m all for films making proud statements, and I found myself wanting to stand up and clap as one theme after another was teased out – from facing the realities of teen life, to family dynamics, adoption, siblinghood and accepting the fallibility of the most loving parent. But there were lots of other things about A Wrinkle in Time I enjoyed that were purely dramatic. I thought the pacing was perfect, and I’m a harsh judge of films that outstay their welcome. The central performances – especially Reid and Deric McCabe – were terrific. I can only imagine the skill it takes to coax such natural performances from young actors. It’s also just really beautiful to look at. In many ways it reminded me of Tomorrowland, with its audacious scope and proudly female tone.
RD: I also thought the young actors were amazing. At the roundtable, Ava described Deric McCabe as exuberant, and it truly is the perfect adjective for him. He is so fiercely committed to his character, and I am very much looking forward to seeing what he does in future. Of her lead actress, Ava said, “Storm Reid is one of the most deeply feeling actors I’ve ever worked with of any age – I compare here with David Oyelowo who played Dr King in Selma in terms of the depth of the way that she feels about her characters.” I was immediately struck by the respect that Ava has for her young actors, and she went on to say that, as the director, she made sure that they knew they could try anything, and that she would be there to catch them. I think this reassurance shows in the final film: intuitive, confident and beautiful performances all around.
AG: I have to acknowledge a couple of avoidable issues. One was chunks of surprisingly clunky dialogue – not at all what you usually get from a film co-written by Jennifer Lee (Frozen, Wreck-It Ralph), and it meant Mindy Kaling in particular suffered from not enough to do. My main familiarity with DuVernay’s other work is 13th, a documentary, so I’m not sure if it’s her usual feature-film style to get quite so vertiginous. I did see the film in IMAX, but I found the regular extreme close ups slightly queasy, and sometimes the technique seemed to undermine the intimacy instead of underscore it.
RD: I enjoyed the concept of the Mrs characters; they’re like a squad of fairy godmothers with whom you don’t always agree or understand, but will come through for you in the end. I didn’t find them entirely cohesive though. Reese Witherspoon was perfect: Elle Woods, having had a career change, in an alternate universe. I really wish that Oprah had had more screen time; she’s always very reassuring, and both the actress and character did serve to ground the film in the little time she was there. Unfortunately, although I am a huge Mindy Kaling fan, I found that the majority of her dialogue – interjected quotes a la inspirational Instagram feed – made it really difficult to see her beyond two dimensions or connect her to the journey of the main characters.
AG: On a parenting note, I’d add that, while the themes are probably most strongly resonant for the middle of the 6-16 group, it’s pretty friendly to the whole age range. I talk a lot about my daughter being a gentle soul – The Jungle Book was too much for her – but she’s super excited to see Wrinkle and so far my judgement is that she’ll be completely fine with it. The scariest bit is mostly implied (unless you have a phobia of trees or branches) and she’ll probably miss some of the nuance there until she’s older anyway.
Hearing from the filmmakers
RD: As I’ve worked with young actors, which means I’ve met many parents, I asked Reid what her advice would be to parents whose kids wanted to get into acting, and I was totally floored by the maturity and insight of this response: “I think that if I were to tell parents – well, you’re not supposed to tell parents anything because you’re supposed to respect them – but I would just say that, if your kid wants to do it, let them do it, and as long as they are having fun and they are enjoying it, they should be doing it, and if they’re doing the right things at home and being good people then you should let them do it. If your kid doesn’t have the same interests as you, then I don’t think that you should force your kid into something because that’s when they become resentful or that’s not when they want to put 150% into something – and not only just acting.”
AG: Storm Reid. STORM REID. She was so immensely poised at the Q&A, talking about the reality of having to find strength inside yourself as a girl or woman in this world, and especially as a girl or woman of colour. Between that and Oprah’s rallying cry to look for the positives – the uprisings, the revolutions – in every difficult and painful piece of political news, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. DuVernay also took the time to call out to the men in the room and ask them to stand up if they’re good allies; you see that figure reflected in the character of Calvin, a model for how to fight for someone else and for change even when it looks like you’re holding all the cards (and it takes time to show that all might not be as it seems).
RD: So to sum up: the film isn’t perfect. It is flawed. But in the same way that Mrs. Whatsit gifts Meg her faults, I think the film’s flaws serve to highlight the film’s strengths: courage, strength and beauty – enough of each to love it exactly as it is.
AG: That’s such a perfect summary, I’m leaving it right there.
A Wrinkle in Time is out in UK cinemas from 23rd March. Thank you to Disney UK for the opportunity to send Rochelle to the roundtable and a screening, and to Honest Mum and Disney UK for the chance to attend the European premiere and Q&A. All thoughts and opinions our own (apart from where we’re quoting others, obviously…).
What an incredible review Alex and such an important film. You are spot on about it being for children, I wish we’d grown up with films inhabited and steered by powerful female leads like A Wrinkle In Time. Thank you for being Peter’s stand-in and for making it a magical night x
Me toooo! It was a magical experience; thanks for making me part of it! xx
“My favourite thing about this film is that our lead character isn’t a superhero: she doesn’t have to transform to be anything superhuman to do anything over and above what she has previously perceived herself to be.” – YES, ROCHELLE DANCEL!!
[…] I’m late writing about this. The reasons are many, some of them I can talk about (a flurry of minor family illness, busy work, social obligations) and others aren’t my story to tell so I will simply say… well… let’s go for personal drama. The effects have drained me of both time and mental availability, so I’m about 3 weeks later than I wanted to be to share my thoughts on this book, which was painstakingly and lovingly written by a friend of mine, Vicki of Honest Mum. (Yes, that Vicki.) […]