Film writer AJ Caulfield has taken the #52FilmsbyWomen pledge, where she will watch one movie directed by a women per week throughout 2018. Here on The Young Folks, AJ reflects on the films she’s viewed — including female-directed classics and new-to-the-scene flicks — in efforts to celebrate female voices in the media landscape. Learn more about the #52FilmsbyWomen project here.
There are only two things I have cheated on in my 23 years: an honors biology test when I was in the tenth grade (I scribbled, in blue ink, a single formula I knew I would forget into the thigh of my dark denim jeans, which I still feel genuinely bad about) and this week’s #52FilmsbyWomen. Instead of solely re-watching Ava DuVernay’s Selma as intended, I took myself on a day date to see A Wrinkle in Time. And then, having detected faint fantastical hints of the sparklings of cinematic magic, promptly fulfilled my first duty.
So technically, it isn’t cheating. I didn’t skirt around responsibilities, but I did watch two films by women (the same woman, granted) rather than just one. I felt I should own up to it. Call it negating my high school debauchery or returning things to zero balance by getting a little too gung-ho about female directors and their gorgeous films. Like The Four Tops, I can’t help myself.
DuVernay’s 2014 American historical drama Selma was her breakout. Its raw nature and its tangibility, the darkness and brutality it chronicles but never uses as a tool to patronize its viewers like so many other genre entries, splintered through the film landscape and shone a light on DuVernay as a creative.
Spearheaded by David Oyelowo’s performance that will give audiences everywhere full-body chills and tears in their eyes, Selma captures a tempestuous and often volatile window of time in 1965: the three months in which Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. campaigned for equal voting rights in the United States — despite facing violent naysayers ready and willing to do anything to stifle King and his supporters. Those three months were marked by three marches, beginning in Selma, Alabama and ending in the state capital 50 miles away in Montgomery, where then-President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) awaited. These tense conversations, which felt as if they could turn on a dime at any moment, between Oyelowo’s King and Wilkinson’s LBJ are the meat and potatoes of Selma, imbuing the already riveting picture with verbal vigor and verve. It takes two to argue, two to tango, and King and Wilkinson dance a rhetorical pas de deux that DuVernay presents with a smooth grace and a sizzling-beneath-the-surface authority in one clean motion.
DuVernay carries this — this spread-it-like-butter storytelling method, this make-it-beautiful-and-buoyant-and-breaking direction — through the film’s full run. She also takes one of America’s greatest figures — one whom generations have revered, worshiped, even deified as a holier-than-the-rest savior — and depicted him not for the glossy caricature of elementary school textbooks, but for who he truly was: a political genius, a dynamic leader, a brilliant orator, and only human, flaws and all.
With A Wrinkle in Time, DuVernay accomplishes something much the same. Let me explain.
Adapted from the acclaimed 1962 novel of the same name, penned by American author Madeleine L’Engle, A Wrinkle in Time follows a young but tough girl named Meg (burgeoning star Storm Reid), whose demeanor has dimmed in the years following her scientist father’s (Chris Pine) mysterious disappearance. Brightness suddenly appears within reach when she, her brilliant younger brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe), and her classmate Calvin (Levi Miller) meet a trio of ethereal astral entities: the time-traveling, space-traversing Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey), Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling), and Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon). The three tell Meg and co. that her father is trapped in a fantasy realm, and the only way to rescue him is through a mission that will test her strength and resilience and push her to overcome her insecurities and shortcomings.
DuVernay’s take on A Wrinkle in Time isn’t a one-to-one translation, as doing so would be essentially impossible (the source material doesn’t exactly lend itself to adaptation), and the film isn’t a flawless one by any stretch of the imagination. Most of what swirls around the pic’s core — the emotionality of the narrative, the outstanding performances from the entire cast (Reid and Pine are expectedly vivid, and Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Michael Peña, Zach Galifianakis, and André Holland in the supporting roster are equally so) — feels slap-dash. The script is noticeably jagged and unsure of itself, as it asks, “Should I be serious in this scene, or more reserved? For how long, and how intensely, should I let the fantastical elements flutter?” The pacing is, at times, uneven. The tone is, at nearly all times, disjointed and erratic. That air of dissonance is made more apparent when it’s juxtaposed against the otherworldliness of Tobias Schliessler’s cinematography, Paco Delgado’s costume design, and Ramin Djawadi’s score. The beauty makes the bad bits even brasher.
What saves A Wrinkle in Time from being a toss-to-the-side film, however, is DuVernay’s direction, and her keen skills in metamorphosing something that existed before her creative vision came about and jolting it with a new sense of life. She did it once with Selma, and again with Wrinkle, this time positioning L’Engle’s tale around a focus many might not have anticipated: the importance of self-worth, the transformative power of love, and the healing nature of hope. And like DuVernay had ensured in Selma, the message was never spoon-fed, never felt like condescension.
For all the ways I could define how Selma and A Wrinkle in Time vary from one another (and believe you me, there are many) there will always exist one core equivalence between them. In both, DuVernay demonstrates her ability to tell a familiar story — the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in Selma, L’Engle’s science fantasy fable in A Wrinkle in Time — and turn it into something unexpected, for better or for not-as-good.