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Ava DuVernay’s A Wrinkle in Time values feelings more than narrative. That’s not a bad thing.

This movie doesn’t wear its heart on its sleeve. It wears its heart as a shirt.

A Wrinkle in Time
A Wrinkle in Time isn’t perfect. But it captures beautifully what it is to live inside its heroine’s head.
Atsushi Nishijima/Disney
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

The most important shots in Ava DuVernay’s undeniably flawed but undeniably fascinating A Wrinkle in Time are the ones you might not notice offhand. But they’re peppered throughout the movie, a constant refrain that asks viewers to focus in.

These shots almost all feature hugs, whether between characters long separated and now reunited or between characters who see each other every day and have gained a renewed appreciation for each other. DuVernay gets in close. The hugs are often shot in such a way as to cut off much of the visual information we’d expect from an embrace.

If the camera pulled back, even a little bit, we’d see both people in the hug, from head to waist, as you’d normally expect. Instead, the hugs are typically framed from the perspective of awkward young teen Meg Murry (the excellent Storm Reid), who towers over her younger brother but is dwarfed by most of the other characters. Thus, we’re always watching Meg be enveloped by someone or envelop someone herself. The implication seems clear: We’re meant to feel these hugs, the comfort and love and sometimes frustration that courses through them.

A Wrinkle in Time has come in for criticism, bordering on gleeful dismantling of the film from some corners, perhaps because DuVernay’s directorial career has seemed somewhat charmed to this point (her last two films, Selma and 13th, were both nominated for major Oscars), and Wrinkle is an obviously ungainly thing, even if you like it.

But some of this also likely stems from the fact that Wrinkle isn’t afraid to be desperately sincere and needy. It’s not a movie that wears its heart on its sleeve; it’s a movie that wears its heart as a shirt, which makes it all too easy to pick on.

Oh, well. I rather loved it, the poor little wounded thing.

Madeleine L’Engle, and the perils of adapting an overstuffed novel for the big screen

A Wrinkle in Time
Welcome to the beach planet! Cue the surf guitars! (No, really, this is a terrible place you should never visit.)
Atsushi Nishijima/Disney

Understanding why Wrinkle both does and doesn’t work requires dipping back into the works of Madeleine L’Engle, the novelist who wrote the 1963 Newbery Medal-winning book of the same name that has gone on to become a beloved classic that is simultaneously almost impossible to adapt to film.

This stems from L’Engle’s approach to narrative: She often treats books as junk drawers filled with various thoughts and ideas that interest her. Her characters get interested in scientific and religious concepts that she was interested in, and her plots don’t develop so much as they happen around the characters.

My favorite of her books, 1980’s A Ring of Endless Light, mixes science about dolphins with somewhat goopy ideas about death in equal measure, and it concludes with several passages of exquisite imagery, mixed with prose that strains for the beauty of poetry or maybe even music.

A sorta-sequel to Wrinkle, 1986’s Many Waters, delivers Meg’s twin brothers, Sandy and Dennys (not present in the film), to the era of Noah (yes, of the Ark) and concludes with L’Engle deciding women were written out of the biblical narrative because they were so awesome they got to just go straight to hanging out with God, before Sandy and Dennys are swept away from the incoming flood by a time-traveling unicorn.

Ridiculous? Sure. But there’s such intense commitment that it works. L’Engle, at all turns, just goes for it, and she rarely cares if you’re on the same page as she is.

The problem with adapting junk-drawer narratives for the screen is that you never know which little piece is going to prove essential to keeping the story more or less intact onscreen. Even worse, the thing that makes the story work for me might be the thing you could care less about, and vice versa.

Adapters of L’Engle’s work, then, have to streamline unwieldy plots while simultaneously trying to decide which of many different scientific or philosophical ideas she dropped into her books are vital to keeping the spirit of the work alive.

The movie version of Wrinkle seems to dart, pell-mell, from event to event, planet to planet, in part because the book, when boiled down to a straightforward plot summary, does this as well. But we’re so firmly affixed within the point of view of Meg on the page that it doesn’t ever feel like this is happening; the real plot — Meg’s gradual journey toward better understanding herself — unfolds much more deliberately.

In the book, the planets exist as outward reflections of Meg’s interiority. Onscreen, each has to be its own place, with its own design and its own logic, and every time the movie loses its momentum and has to regain it, it’s because it ground to a halt to go somewhere new. This gives the entire middle of the movie a start-and-stop quality, making it the rare blockbuster that should probably be slightly longer, if only to better ground everything that’s happening.

It also doesn’t help that L’Engle’s villain is more or less an evil brain (good luck making that threatening) and, more specifically, just the idea of people being cruel and unkind to each other. Again, this works more easily in a book than onscreen, because Meg is warring against her own evil brain in an effort to stop being so cruel and unkind to herself. If that sounds like a metaphor for depression, you’re not wrong, and the film is at its strongest when it leans into this quality.

But that’s not the only reason the movie Wrinkle ultimately works, or why its conclusion ultimately landed beautifully for me. But to talk about that, we need to talk about Jesus.

You are a speck in the immense flow of spacetime. You are also the single most important thing in the universe. These two ideas aren’t contradictory.

Oprah Winfrey and Storm Reid in A Wrinkle in Time
Hey, it’s Oprah!
Atsushi Nishijima/Disney

The central tension in A Wrinkle in Time on both screen and page is that the single most important thing in the universe turns out to be the conflict within Meg Murry, but, also, Meg Murry is just a piece of a universal puzzle who is so small that she should be rendered insignificant. Or, as the Guardian’s Amy Nicholson put it in one of my favorite pans of the film, “it reduces the whole universe to one girl’s self-esteem.”

This tension is drawn directly from L’Engle’s two great influences: science and progressive Christianity. (While L’Engle was a Christian, her belief system trended much more toward universal salvation — which is to say that she didn’t believe Jesus was the only path to enlightenment, salvation, or heaven.)

Christianity holds that we are all made in the image of God and, thus, tremendously important. If he watches so carefully over the sparrow, we know he must be watching over us even more carefully. But we also know from science that we are mere specks in the vast sweep of all that has ever existed. To insist on our own importance is a cosmic joke.

The film is ill-served in some ways by replacing L’Engle’s Christianity with a vaguely liberal multiculturalism. When one character who speaks primarily in famous inspirational quotes references Hamilton, you can guess the date on the screenplay’s final draft within a week or two of its actual completion, and L’Engle’s ideals of light versus darkness feel a lot more watery when what’s undergirding them has the depth of an Instagram feed, rather than millennia of theological argument and thought.

But I think the movie turns this into a strength in the end. It’s set in a world filled with pain and desperation and fear, like in the book, and like in our own, and it twists the story just enough so that it becomes about Meg realizing that all the pain and desperation and fear she feels is also felt by everyone around her.

Learning to love yourself is one thing; accepting that others love you as much as you love them is harder altogether, especially when clouded by the prism of anxiety and depression. Hence the tight focus on those hugs — here is Meg learning that love can’t be earned and can’t even really be given. It simply is, and understanding its particular wildness is beyond the ken of science, religion, or art. It exists, and we exist within it.

To do good in the world isn’t always to beat back the darkness of the universe, but reaching out to someone in pain — even someone you don’t know well or someone you don’t particularly like — accomplishes the same on a smaller scale.

DuVernay displays this through a brief but moving montage around the film’s midpoint, where Meg gets brief glimpses of the private sorrows of those around her and how those sorrows have hardened them, just as hers have driven her further inward. And it’s here where the film’s moral message most dovetails with L’Engle’s vision of Christianity. They both boil down to: “Try harder. Be better. You are loved.”

That makes A Wrinkle in Time a little didactic in a way that isn’t particularly in fashion. It is, ultimately, a tale of moral instruction meant primarily to reach the young, but also to remind those of us who are not young of a time when we were first encountering these ideas and believed the world might prove to be a better, fairer place than it seemed. When you are 12, you think mostly of what the world owes you, but you’re starting to think about what you might owe it, too, and what we might owe to each other.

The movie might not be overtly Christian, but it can’t escape L’Engle’s spin on religion all the same. In the film’s most moving scene, Meg confers with the magisterial Mrs. Which (played as a kind of cross between Yoda and God by Oprah Winfrey, which is to say she is typecast) about why she’s on this particular voyage throughout the universe, when she doesn’t seem particularly well-suited to it. It’s a question she has in the book too. Sure, she’s smart, and sure, she’s a good sister. But why her?

Well, why any of us? Mrs. Which’s answer is that Meg herself is a miracle. Not in the religious sense, but in the sense that any of us — including you, including me — is a complete and total accident of existence. The sheer number of things that have had to happen since the dawn of the universe for us to exist is staggering, and to think about it will force you back into the myopia of pretending otherwise.

But think, just for a moment, of the unlikelihood of your parents meeting each other long enough to produce you, or of their parents, or their parents, and on and on, all the way back to rats scrabbling in the dirt after the extinction of the dinosaurs. We shouldn’t be here. But we are.

I’m a firm lover of misfit works of art that never quite achieve their greatest potential, and a believer in the idea that I’d rather see something interesting than something merely competent. A rare handful of movies are made stronger by their flaws because those flaws make what works stand out, especially to those who are on its wavelength. I think Wrinkle functions much in this way, becoming a movie more about how it would feel to live through these events than the events themselves. It’s a triumph of emotional acuity, at the expense of narrative coherence.

For all its faults, Wrinkle dials in to a very specific frequency, to that time I came home from school crying because kids had made fun of me on the bus, and instead of trying to buck up my spirits or give me advice or even try to help me plot revenge, my parents took one look at me and knew what I needed wasn’t words but connection. How did they know? How do any of us?

We are all mysteries, walking around like our existence is an answer, terrified because we know it isn’t. And so we reach out and connect and maybe, in our darkest moments, give somebody a hug. It’s what we have.

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