Review: “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret”

Fifty-three years ago, author Judy Blume published her now-iconic middle-grade novel Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, a book lauded and criticized in equal measure for its frank portrayal of girlhood. And for 50 years, Blume refused repeated attempts to purchase the films rights to the story of Margaret Simon, an 11-year-old girl who undergoes a crisis of faith when her family moves from New York City to New Jersey. Blume’s novel was a hit on its release and in the decades since has become a seminal coming-of-age tale for young girls. To a lesser extent, the same could be said for Kelly Fremon Craig’s 2016 debut feature film The Edge of Seventeen, a sharp comedy/drama that filled the gap of compelling coming-of-age stories for teen girls that had been sorely lacking for the Gen-Z audience. So it makes sense that when Blume did finally hand over the reins to her book, it was to Craig and producer James L. Brooks.

And what an adaptation Craig’s It’s Me, Margaret is, one that faithfully recreates essential scenes from the 1970-set story while expanding on its characters and themes in meaningful ways. Abby Ryder Fortson, who has been kicking around in a few film roles over the last several years (including playing Cassie Lang in the first two Ant-Man movies), is, pardon the cliché, a revelation as Margaret, impressively committing to tackling all of the character’s uncertainties and joys and worries and immature outbursts forthrightly and honestly. When she comes home from summer camp and discovers that her parents Barbara (Rachel McAdams) and Herb (Benny Safdie) have bought a car, packed up their New York City apartment, and purchased a home in the New Jersey suburbs, away from her beloved grandmother Sylvia (an amusingly brash Kathy Bates), Margaret is understandably distraught. Her father is Jewish, her mother Christian, but Margaret, whose parents chose to raise her without any religious affiliation so she could choose her beliefs for herself later in life (we later discover, in a heart-wrenching scene between mother and daughter, that this is because Barbara’s devout Christian parents disowned her when they found out she was marrying a Jew), begins speaking to God in an attempted search for guidance—not only about faith, but about other things she’s going through, such as begging God for her period to start or her breasts to grow so she will not be considered a freak by her new school friends.

Rachel McAdams and Abby Ryder Fortson in “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret”

Like the book, It’s Me, Margaret is set over the course of this one school year, as Margaret turns 12, makes new friends with the bossy Nancy Wheeler (a perfectly-cast Elle Graham) and her clique, develops a crush on Moose, the boy who mows their lawn, goes to parties, explores different religions for a year-long school project, and learns some important lessons in empathy and humility. Combining Blume’s clever prose with her own flourishes, It’s Me, Margaret at every turn deeply relatable, hilarious, and moving. As special and unique as the novel is, the narrative proves to be incredibly well-suited for the screen. Certain cinematic touches contribute to the hilarity, such as a cut from Margaret and her friends (they form a secret club where they meet every week to talk about bras and boys) ogling at the model in one of Herb’s copies of Playboy to frantically doing arm exercises that Nancy swears will make them grow faster while chanting, “We must! We must! We must increase our bust!” Later in the film, Margaret and Janie (Amari Price) go to the drugstore and decide to buy pads just so they’ll be ready when the time comes, but they hesitate when they see the elderly female cashier change shifts with a young man. The overhead shot of the box of pads slowly creaking down the conveyor belt toward the cashier is one of the funniest bits of the entire film. The period details in the production and costume design and soundtrack, by the way, are immaculate. But for all the hijinks, something always happens that prompts the characters to seriously confront the reality of growing up, like when Nancy—who falsely boasted about getting her period to Margaret and her friends earlier—really does get it for the first time, and reacts not with joy and pride but with fear.

While this movie is still very much Margaret’s story, Craig expands on the supporting characters, namely Barbara and Sylvia, creating a portrait of three different generations of womanhood. For all her bravado, Craig lets the camera linger on Sylvia when she’s alone in her New York apartment, her family no longer right next to her, having already crossed off the two minor items on her to-do list. Her loneliness makes the reveal later on that she’s met a man while vacationing in Florida for the winter that much more satisfying. Barbara, meanwhile, is given an arc that isn’t really present in the novel, but is every bit as vital as Margaret’s story. A painter who taught art classes in New York, Barbara sacrifices that piece of herself to become a stay-at-home mother and devote herself more fully to home-making and to the goings-on at Margaret’s school, including joining way too many of the PTA’s various committees. Her initial idealism soon gives way to a frustration that visibly manifests itself whenever she’s alone, whether it’s her inability to learn to cook or indecision over what kind of furniture she wants for their new living room (resulting in Herb having to pull in a lawn chair from outside) or the various inane PTA tasks she takes on that suck away any time she might have put toward her own creative pursuits. Barbara’s difference from the other parents is obvious as soon as she walks into her first PTA meeting, her long hair and loose clothes standing in contrast to the other women’s neatly coiffed hairstyles and fitted dresses. It’s learning that trying to be someone you’re not—in this case, bending to fit into the stereotypical housewife mold—isn’t the way to happiness, as well as making peace with her family history, that is the internal conflict Barbara wrestles with, and the result is one of McAdams’ best performances, one brimming with empathy and love for her family and turmoil within herself. Safdie is perfectly serviceable as Herb, and Sylvia and Margaret share several wonderful moments that deftly illustrate how strong their bond is, but it’s the mother/daughter relationship and all the highs and lows that come with it that is the movie’s greatest strength.

Benny Safdie and Rachel McAdams in “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret”

Many of the topics that It’s Me, Margaret addresses that were considered taboo to discuss publicly (from menstruation to religious doubt) are still hot-button issues today. That’s one reason why I’m so glad this film exists; it presents these sometimes-embarrassing-to-talk-about issues to girls around Margaret’s age in a manner that is frank but easily-digestible, honest but funny, and, for all its pains, reveling in a true joy for girlhood that’s devoid of shame. The other reason I’m glad it exists is that there is an outlet for viewers of any age or persuasion to enter into the story and find things to commiserate with or relate to, whether it’s coming into it from Barbara or Sylvia’s perspective or remembering what it was like to be Margaret’s age. Craig created one of the most memorable coming-of-age stories of the last decade with The Edge of Seventeen and now, seven years later, she’s done it again, bringing fresh eyes to an already timeless story. It may have taken a while, but Blume certainly picked the right filmmaker to translate her book to the big screen.

Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret will be released in theaters on April 28. Runtime: 105 minutes. Rated PG-13.

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