What I remember most about “A Wrinkle in Time” is my second-grade teacher crying over the final pages during read-aloud time, along with nearly everyone else. I suspect some variant of this experience is common among readers who grew up any time since 1962, when Madeleine L’Engle’s beloved science-fiction coming-of-age novel was first published.
The movie adaptation, directed by Ava DuVernay from a screenplay by Jennifer Lee and Jeff Stockwell, has been a long time coming, and it arrives in theaters buoyed by and burdened with expectations. It is the first $100 million movie directed by an African-American woman, and the diversity of its cast is both a welcome innovation and the declaration of a new norm. This is how movies should look from now on, which is to say how they should have looked all along. Fans of the book and admirers of Ms. DuVernay’s work — I include myself in both groups — can breathe a sigh of relief, and some may also find that their breath has been taken away.
Mine was, once or twice, though I would describe the overall experience as satisfaction rather than awe. “A Wrinkle in Time,” faithful to the affirmative, democratic intelligence of the book, is also committed to serving its most loyal and susceptible audience. This is, unapologetically, a children’s movie, by turns gentle, thrilling and didactic, but missing the extra dimension of terror and wonder that would have transcended the genre. Thankfully, though, Ms. DuVernay has dispensed with the winking and cutesiness that are Hollywood’s preferred ways of pandering and condescending to grown-ups. The best way to appreciate what she has done is in the company of a curious and eager 10-year-old (as I was fortunate enough to do). Or, if you’re really lucky, to locate that innocent, skeptical, openhearted version of yourself.
The story comes with a heroine who makes such identification easy. Meg Murry is a smart, hurt and very real-seeming middle school student played with wonderful solemnity by Storm Reid. Meg’s father (Chris Pine), a brilliant and ambitious scientist, has disappeared, leaving behind Meg; her brother, Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe); and their mother (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who is also a brilliant and ambitious scientist.
The parental partnership, an intellectual romance and a romance between intellectuals, is conveyed with graceful efficiency in the first part of the movie, which also sketches Meg’s predicament. As she grieves for her father and wonders where he went, she also contends with the usual early adolescent afflictions and anxieties. Her grades are slumping, her classmates tease her, and neither the principal (André Holland) nor her mother seem to understand what she is going through.
The frustrations and injustices of youth can feel as vast as the cosmos. In Meg’s case, they literally are. Her father didn’t just run off, he “tessered,” slipping into a distant part of the universe to prove a hypothesis about space, time and consciousness that he and his wife had developed together. Now he is lost, and everything is threatened by a malevolent force known as the IT (not to be confused with the malevolent force in the movie “It”), which lives on a planet called Camazotz.
Tesser, by the way is the verb form of “tesseract,” a phenomenon rendered more poetically by the movie’s title. That and a good deal more is explained by Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which, three astrophysical principles who take the earthly forms of Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling and a literally bigger-than-life Oprah Winfrey. Mrs. Whatsit is a flame-haired, slightly scatterbrained chatterbox. Mrs. Who is an edition of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations come to life, offering wisdom gleaned from the likes of Rumi, Shakespeare and Lin-Manuel Miranda. Mrs. Which offers her own brand of affirmation, guidance and tough love, encouraging Meg to find and become her best self and to be a warrior for good against the forces of darkness. In other words: Oprah Winfrey. With glittering makeup and shimmering armor.