In her first guest post, my fellow cinephile, amazing writer, former flatmate, and good friend Nannina Gilder eloquently analyzes A Wrinkle in Time.
We need to stop dismissing the experiences and tastes of teenage girls as shallow and superficial. Isn’t it the kiss of death to a “serious” band, or actor, or book to say that its fanbase is young and female? Unfortunately much of the art created for young women is made by people who have never been young women, and is often cynically trying to cash in on the demographic without ever truly looking to understand it. The knee-jerk reaction to dismiss and diminish anything that reads as feminine means that when an artist with a firm grasp of the experience creates a work grounded in it, its craft, structure, and innovations often get shrugged off as unworthy of analysis. Ava DuVernay’s A Wrinkle in Time has been reluctantly hailed as a disappointment, a kid’s movie with little to appeal to adults, a good-hearted brightly colored Disneyfied muddle. But that is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of what DuVernay has done. How unique it is in its whole-hearted immersion into the head of a 13 year-old girl, and how that is a worthy and fascinating place to spend two hours of your life.
A Wrinkle in Time, as Madeleine L’Engle conceived it, is firmly rooted in the feminine experience and imagination, and Ava DuVernay’s adaptation visually brings this concept to life. At its core, emotion drives the film rather than action, and many people have criticized it for being full of sudden unexplained jumps and changes, but this ignores the fact that an adventure of emotion has a different pace and structure than the classic hero’s journey we are used to. Think of the wild mood swings of a preteen, how confounding the world can seem. The way L’Engle structured A Wrinkle in Time was not just shoe-horning a girl into masculine archetypes; there is not just one type of hero’s journey. In fact there are countless predecessors to Meg Murry in the folklore traditions of the world. Traditionally the heroine’s journey, like Meg’s, begins with loss; a loss of family or love, and she sets out to reclaim that part of her, tested over and over on her way. Each time she thinks she finds success she is given a harder challenge, and when she reaches her goal, it is marked by a deep betrayal.
Ava DuVernay understands that the way a filmmaker approaches this story should be fundamentally different, and she sees power in the things that the world tells girls are frivolous. In a change from the book, Meg Murry’s guides on her journey, Mrs. Which, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Whatsit, do not look like eccentric tramps, dressed in a weird assortment of mismatched clothes, but are gorgeously arrayed in dresses that look like something that might have been doodled on the margin of a 13 year-old’s notebook in her sparkling jellyroll pens. Each time they travel through time and space, or “tesser,” their wardrobe and make-up are gloriously changed, flying in the face of criticisms that in order to be taken seriously a woman needs to reject self-expression through fashion. Though Meg’s own wardrobe of a flannel shirt and jeans could easily be worn by her friend Calvin, she is never coded as masculine. Her love of science and propensity to get into fights are not viewed as being at odds with the fact that she’s a girl, but intrinsic parts of her. She is allowed to be neither a girly-girl nor a tomboy, inhabiting a middle ground of femininity that many will find refreshingly familiar.
Like the Mrs. Ws’ fashions, the worlds Meg, her brother Charles Wallace, and Calvin travel to are deeply rooted in the feminine imagination. The first planet they tesser to, Uriel, has the heightened Technicolor extravagance of an animated film. Even the distant hills have a disconcertingly flat quality. Its excess can be overwhelming, and isn’t always appealing, but it has the feeling of a young girl’s bedroom, with butterfly flowers that undulate, speaking the language of color. Even the not entirely convincing form of Mrs. Whatsit after she transforms into a flying cabbage leaf are images that I have seen, either in my own childhood imaginings, or in the doodles and drawings of my friends. This is the world of Meg Murry’s mind. As are the amber balance beams of the Happy Medium, revealing Meg’s insecurity in very literal ways, and the ever-morphing evil planet of Camazotz, which deceives and changes at every turn, cutting into each person’s most vulnerable places with the goal of making them conform. It is not an accident that some of the surreal images on Camazotz, such as the use of bouncing balls, echo earlier scenes from Meg’s real life in school.
Just because A Wrinkle in Time is rooted in the fantasy lives of young girls doesn’t mean that it is haphazard or uncontrolled. Ava DuVernay is an expert at centering her films on emotion and grounding their visuals in the feelings of her characters. From her first features, I Will Follow and Middle of Nowhere (dealing with grief and lives put on pause), DuVernay has deftly used close-ups and sound to both isolate and bring together her characters. In her masterpiece Selma she took an epic subject and, without removing its grandeur, grounded it in the intimate moments between the characters. This epic intimacy is turned up to eleven in A Wrinkle in Time. The way DuVernay frames her close-ups often gives room to reveal the distance or proximity of two characters in space. These shots emphasize relationships, emotion, and empathy and the inherent drama of these qualities, favoring them above action and physical conflict. This is a deliberate subversion of expectations for an adventure story, and says that the things women and girls are often belittled for can be their strengths. As Mrs. Whatsit says “Meg, trouble-problematic Meg. To you, I give the gift of your faults.”
Of course this doesn’t mean that the people and critics who don’t like A Wrinkle in Time are wrong, but what many of them aren’t getting is that it is an incredibly specific world, that wasn’t made for them. A Wrinkle in Time is a good movie, a beautifully crafted movie, an incredibly deliberate movie, and not everyone will like it. Not everything has to be universal (though trying to see the world through the eyes of others is a great exercise in empathy and the onus has been on girls to practice that far more than boys (and girls of color even more so)), but the fact that something isn’t universal doesn’t mean that critics get to dismiss specific works of art as small and inconsequential. Ava DuVernay has created something new, a sci-fi adventure in the mind and imagination of a girl, and in doing so has deliberately broken many rules in order to put new ones in place. I hope that it will find its niche that will allow it to be celebrated as the radical, feminine, beautiful, psychedelic cult classic it is.
Nannina is a screenwriter living in Western Massachusetts. You can get in touch with her via Twitter @NanninaGilder