A Wrinkle in Time (2018)

The popular myth about A Wrinkle in Time is that it’s an “unfilmable” novel, but there have certainly been more out-there, ethereal works of fiction adapted to the big screen with great success, so I don’t necessarily buy that. Ava DuVernay’s recent big screen adaptation of the children’s fantasy novel is being lumped in with past failed attempts, including a horrendous-looking made-for-TV monstrosity from 2003 that’s way beneath its pedigree as a big budget Disney release. I don’t think that comparison is giving DuVernay’s ambitious, bravely earnest self-empowerment fantasy enough credit for the admirably bizarre (even if frequently minor) successes it pulls from its loose-logic source material. I think the problem might largely be viewers’ emotional attachment to a novel that meant a lot to them as kids, but must be streamlined & reshaped to be presentable in a feature length movie format. The best novels leave a lot of mental space for readers to fill in the details, which is a luxury the visual medium of filmmaking cannot afford, so the difference between a reader’s mental picture & what ends up on the screen is always going to be a little jarring. While watching A Wrinkle in Time I thought a lot about Boomer’s review of Annihilation, which he called an “A+ science fiction that also happens to be a D+ translation of the source material, if your qualifications for a good adaptation revolve solely around how closely the film version adheres to the novel.” To me, that A+ means the adaptation was a total success, faithfulness to the source material be damned. I’d more likely call A Wrinkle in Time a C+ fantasy picture, as I’m not nearly as enthusiastic about it as I am about Annihilation, but in being even a passably enjoyable film that could’ve been improved upon, it still defies the idea that its inspiring novel is “unfilmable.”

Oddly enough, its adventurousness as an adaptation is not the only facet of A Wrinkle in Time that reminded me of Alex Garland’s Annihilation. Josh Larsen of Filmspotting has already expanded upon the surprising similarities between their dual mind-bending trips into alien landscapes (The Camazotz & The Shimmer, respectively) elsewhere, but what’s fascinating to me is the way A Wrinkle in Time makes Annihilation’s brand of sci-fi psychedelia palatable to children by softening it with Oprah-flavored self-empowerment & Disney Channel precociousness. Oprah Winfrey herself appears in A Wrinkle in Time as a godlike figure in outer space drag makeup. She & her lesser eternal-being underlings (Reese Witherspoon & Mindy Kaling) relieve a depressed young nerd from grief over her NASA scientist father’s disappearance by offering her a chance to miraculously travel through space & time to rescue him from a realm ruled by Fear & dark thoughts. Backed by a queasily earnest inspo-pop soundtrack and blown up to almost kaiju-sized proportions, Oprah is in her element here. The movie is built around her career-long self-help messaging about overcoming fear & self-doubt. This advice & reinforcement is doled out to our troubled protagonist in encouraging slogans: “You have no idea how incredible you are,” “Be a warrior,” “You have such beautiful faults,” “We can’t take any credit for our talents; it’s how you use them that counts,” etc. The middle school drama she suffers enough to need this New Age inspo encouragement has a distinct Disney Channel vibe to it that will directly appeal to children, whereas adults are likely to see cheese. Oprah & her magical space crew can only prepare this child so much for the psychedelic darkness that will greet her (along with history’s most annoyingly shrill adopted brother & a blank page love interest) as she enters the nightmare landscape of The Camazotz to rescue her father, much like Natalie Portman’s complete lack of preparedness at the edge of the big evil soap bubble in Annihilation. The surprises and challenges that await her there are genuinely odd, distributing stuff and make any of the awkward precociousness of the build-up worthwhile for the emotional payoff.

Everyone seems to have an opinion on how A Wrinkle in Time could have been improved as an adaptation, so I might as well offer mine here: this film should’ve been animated. As a modern, Disney brand exercise in CG spectacle, the film is already in a way a live-action/animation hybrid. Oprah’s five-point star silhouette & 50ft stature already make her resemble a Hayao Miyazaki character. Reese Witherspoon briefly transforms into a flying lettuce dragon that would have been a lot easier to stomach in a 2D animation context. The literalized encroachment of an evil Darkness poisoning the Universe with fear & self-destructive thoughts works a lot better in the proto Disney-Miyazaki collaboration Little Nemo’s Adventures in Slumberland. There’s a lot of reverence for flight & Nature in the film that feels familiar to Studio Ghibli territory (not to mention the studio’s tendency to adapt female-penned fantasy novels); the recent animated release Mary and the Witch’s Flower telegraphed its melding of science & magic; last year’s Your Name. laid out a lot of solid groundwork for how its more intangible, psychedelic impulses could’ve been represented onscreen in expressive, illogical indulgences in traditional animation. God help me, I think I’m saying I would have enjoyed A Wrinkle in Time more if it were a modern anime, the last major refuge for traditional, hand-animated cinema. As someone who doesn’t watch nearly enough anime to be considered even slightly informed on the subject and hasn’t read the film’s source material in at least two decades, my take on how to successfully adapt A Wrinkle in Time to the screen should be treated as highly suspect. I do think the logical freedom of animation could do this book wonders, though.

As a sucker for wide-eyed earnestness & soft psychedelia in children’s work, I enjoyed A Wrinkle in Time more than I found fault in it. The larger critical community’s dismissal of better works like Tomorrowland & Wonderstruck that operate within a similar tone means this movie never really had a chance for anything near universal appeal. That’s purely a matter of taste, though. What really bugs me is the idea that the movie was mediocre because its source material is “unfilmable.” In every other way Ava DuVernay’s Oprah-worshipping Annihilation Jr. psychedelia might have been only a mild success, but it’s in itself proof that an affecting, engaging adaptation of the novel can be (and now has been) done. There’s also huge chance that the film’s Disney-level distribution will get it in the hands of the people who need it most: depressed, unsociable middle school nerds who could use a 50ft Oprah-sized ego boost. I imagine those kids will then be led to the novel and form their own ideas about what is and what isn’t “filmable.” Those are the takes we should probably trust the most; feel free to ignore mine in the meantime.

-Brandon Ledet

Citizen Ruth (1996), Election (1999), and the Erosion of the Female POV in Alexander Payne’s Filmography

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July’s Movie of the Month, the 1996 abortion-themed black comedy Citizen Ruth, was the debut feature from blistering satirist Alexander Payne. Since this initial work of relentlessly bleak humor, Payne has consistently delivered soul-crippling dramedies that typically fall somewhere between Todd Solondz & Noah Baumbach in their meticulous indulgence in human despair. What’s been less consistent, however, is the way Payne has dealt with the prominence of his female characters. Citizen Ruth dealt with a homeless addict who unwittingly finds herself the center of a national debate on abortion rights. Although Ruth, played with heartbreaking sincerity & total lack of vanity by a top-of-her-game Laura Dern, navigates a world where her legal & bodily struggles are dominated by a vast network of uncaring men, she is still the center of her own story. Citizen Ruth is the only top-billed Laura Dern performance where her protagonist actually commands the film’s POV. It also happens to be the only film from Alexander Payne that centers entirely on a woman’s POV, a perspective he’s been seemingly drifting further away from ever since.

Alexander Payne’s last three films have all included interesting, complex roles for female characters, but they’re roles that mostly color & complicate the lives of the writer-director’s male protagonists. Sideways, The Descendants, and Nebraska are all about men, usually middle-aged, in a moment of personal crisis. Payne-penned women merely swirl around them. The closest Payne has gotten to repeating the female-centered POV of Citizen Ruth was in his follow-up to that initial work (and his best film to date, in my opinion), Election. The 1999 MTV-produced dark comedy Election doesn’t exactly have a female protagonist, but does its best to split its POV 50/50 along the gender binary among four equally interesting characters. It’s also acidically critical of adult male power dynamics in how they deal with the women under their influence, another aspect of Payne’s early work you aren’t going to see echoed in films like Sideways.

Election derives its title from its fictional high school presidential election in which young, A-type personality Tracy Flick (played as a hilariously uptight go-getter by Reese Witherspoon) is roadblocked by bitter middle-aged teacher Jim McAllister (a full-schlep Matthew Broderick), who is annoyed to the point of cruelty by her youthful promise & his own personal failures. I remembered from watching this film as a teen that  both of these characters were dismally selfish & abusive, but it plays very differently returning to it as an adult. Tracy Flick can be annoying, sure, as many high school goody two-shoes can, but she in no way matches the grown man evil of Jim McAllister. The film begins with McAllister blaming the underage Flick for ruining the life & career of a colleague, an adult man & an unlikely father figure, who she had an affair with. This pattern repeats itself later in the film when McAllister himself has an affair & again blames the woman for the transgression. The worst you could say about Flick is that she’s demanding & self-serving (to the point where she treats Jesus like an employee in her bedtime prayers), but there’s an element of class politics in that demeanor. Flick comes from a poor, single-parent family & works hard, militantly hard, to free herself from that economic restraint, looking down on the kids who have it easier & don’t have to try as hard with as much daily persistence to succeed. McAllister, who has settled for a mediocre life in a loveless marriage, getting small thrills from participating in high school extracurriculars & beating off to high school-themed porn in his basement, hates the promise Flick works so hard to secure for her future & seeks to nip it in the bud when he hits his spiritual low point. It’s a far worse impulse than anything you could say about Flick’s naked, admittedly abrasive ambition.

Payne pits Flick & McAllister against each other in a larger narrative involving a charming idiot jock & his lesbian slacker sister (who share narration duties with the main characters), a structure that recalls the political satire vs. character study narrative arc of Citizen Ruth. This 50/50 gender split is the closest Payne’s ever come to returning to the female POV of his debut, which isn’t exactly a mark against his films’ overall quality, but does point to an interesting shift in the way he’s written stories since his early stirrings in the 90s. The only time I’ve become actively annoyed with the masculine-centered POV in a Payne film is in the middle-aged ennui of Sideways, but that was mostly a matter of personal taste. Still, I’d gladly welcome a Payne project that returned to the feminine POV of his first two films, It looks like his next project, Downsizing, will at least be a return to the 50/50 split of his sophomore work, a film that might divide its attentions between characters portrayed by Sideways‘s Paul Giamatti & Election‘s Reese Witherspoon. It could be a start, but still wouldn’t be a full return to the perspective established in Citizen Ruth. Hell, as long as Payne’s bringing back old collaborators, he might as well write another starring role for Citizen Ruth‘s Laura Dern. The world desperately needs more of her top-bill performances & Payne himself could use an excuse to write another work from a woman’s perspective, a creative starting point he seems to be drifting further away from with each project.

For more on July’s Movie of the Month, Alexander Payne’s abortion-themed black comedy Citizen Ruth, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, this look at its place along the trajectory of the modern abortion comedy, and last week’s comparison of Laura Dern’s performance with her other top-billed roles.

-Brandon Ledet