Critic's Notebook: 'A Wrinkle in Time' Isn't a Great Film, But Why Does It Have to Be?

Ava DuVernay's film was destined to disappoint, given the outrageously high bar set for female and minority directors.
Courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Ava DuVernay's film was destined to disappoint, given the outrageously high bar set for female and minority directors.

Disney marketed A Wrinkle in Time to theatergoers like no other film in recent memory. I went to the movies about once a week in the past month (I'm talking civilian screenings, not ad-free press previews), and each time, I saw a Wrinkle trailer with director Ava DuVernay in close-up, telling the audience what making her fantasy children's adaptation meant to her. DuVernay, whose last two films (the MLK bio Selma and the mass-incarceration doc 13th) racked up three Oscar nods in as many years, thus became the face of Wrinkle, despite more recognizable castmembers like Reese Witherspoon, Oprah Winfrey, Mindy Kaling and Chris Pine. (In contrast, you won't see Steven Spielberg's mug in the Ready Player One trailers.) DuVernay's central role in selling Wrinkle is a testament to her popularity as a spokesperson for inclusion in Hollywood.

As the first live-action $100 million project helmed by a woman of color, A Wrinkle in Time had to tell two feel-good stories: that of a biracial teen (played by Storm Reid) learning to love and trust herself, and that of female artists and artists of color triumphing in an industry that has traditionally disregarded their perspectives and contributions. But Wrinkle didn't deliver on either count. Mixed to negative reviews led to a disappointing $33 million opening weekend at the box office. With a 42 percent Rotten Tomatoes rating and a middling B CinemaScore, the film underwhelmed critics and adult audiences (kids gave it an A–), weighed down as it was by a messy script with too many affirmational platitudes and not enough character development.

I'll happily defend the (wildly ambitious, immensely personal) movie on its own merits. But first, it's important to note the ludicrously unfair burden that Wrinkle was saddled with as soon as DuVernay signed on and turned protagonist Meg into a biracial girl: It had to be both artistically dazzling and a commercial hit in order for it to be considered any kind of success. Grossly put, the "system" was rigged against it.

The culture wars today are such that individual productions are gauged as barometers of social values. The mega-successes of Black Panther and Wonder Woman have been widely analyzed, correctly, as evidence that audiences were starved for representation. Naturally, some are wondering this week if the corollary is true: Does the (relative) failure of A Wrinkle in Time mean that female audiences and moviegoers of color have had their fill? Is the centering of women of color too "niche" for mainstream viewers? The countless stories of female directors and filmmakers of color sent to "movie jail" after one creative misfire make these questions more than theoretical. Careers have been ended, or put on ice, for much less.

It seems pretty obvious that the answer to the questions above is an adamant "no." Black Panther and Wonder Woman built on previous franchises and deliberately hewed to a crowd-pleasing formula (which is not meant as criticism, simply a matter of fact). DuVernay pursued a different vision; she intentionally eschewed a final battle scene, for example, that would've made Wrinkle conform more to other multiplex fare. Lone films can serve as a reflection of our collective desires. But it's foolhardy to see every film as a mirror, especially when each one is a product of not only its creators, but also its marketing strategies, larger cultural trends and what audiences have been conditioned to like. It's ridiculous to base the social "value" of girls and women of color's stories on one movie, and simply unjust to put that weight on one woman's shoulders. 

I want to note that a truly inclusive industry would give a pass to DuVernay as it has to so many white male directors (not that her career is now in any sort of trouble). Diversity that demands all people from marginalized groups never make a mistake is no diversity at all. It's also annoying that advocates of diversity are forced once again into a defensive posture, making a case for one of our own, when the problem has always been the scarcity of opportunities, not the merits of inclusion. 

I realize that the current argument for a more diverse entertainment landscape is largely predicated on black, brown, yellow, female and LGBTQ artists outperforming the straight white male average; their work has to be good, if not superlative. That kind of thinking has shaped much of the media response to films like Moonlight, Girls Trip, Get Out and Mudbound — that these films' excellence "justifies" diversity. But artists need the space to take risks, and sometimes those risks don't pay off. All I can say is that I hope the executives who wield greenlighting power look at auteurs of any background as fallible human beings, as well as visionaries.

DuVernay certainly proves herself as such with Wrinkle. As a critic, I probably wouldn't indiscriminately recommend the film, but I appreciated that it was a planet-hopping movie with a girl of color at the center. I also admired the injection of the floridly supernatural into West Adams, a historically black neighborhood in Los Angeles (not far from where DuVernay grew up), and, of course, the beauty of the various extraterrestrial terrains, some of which brought me to tears. DuVernay certainly proved wrong naysayers who have dismissed her filmmaking talent in the past and attributed her meteoric rise to saying the right thing. A Wrinkle in Time is, arguably above all, a visual feast.

So DuVernay didn't make a "good" movie. What she has made is an endlessly watchable one, and I hope critics, at least, will soon embrace those other elements in addition to the film's social milestones — just like they'd do with any other notable movie. "Isn't it nice to hear filmmakers of color talk about craft?" DuVernay asked Korean-American filmmaker Justin Chon during a Q&A for his film Gook. There's nothing to be gained from shortchanging DuVernay's racial and feminist accomplishments with Wrinkle. But I hope one day we can appreciate the film beyond them, too.