Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. Review | New, Old, Classic

by Andrew Parker

It’s a small miracle that a big screen adaptation of Judy Blume’s seminal young adult bestseller Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. even exists. It’s an even more remarkable feat that writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig’s adaptation is one of the best films of the year so far. It’s a film so confident in its approach that it makes Blume already incomparable and ground breaking work feel as fresh, important, and vibrant as ever. Much like Blume’s book, Fremon’s take on Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. never talks down to the younger viewers its aimed at, and it’s strong enough to make adult viewers wish they had something even half as good as this while growing up. It’s simply marvellous by every possible metric.

It’s the summer of 1970, and soon-to-be sixth grader Margaret Simon (Abby Ryder Fortson) returns from camp to some sudden, life changing news. Thanks to her father (Benny Safdie) getting a promotion, the Simon family will be packing up and leaving their New York City apartment – as well as Margaret’s doting grandmother (Kathy Bates) – for a home in the New Jersey suburbs. The promotion is so good that Margaret’s art instructor mother (Rachel McAdams) can quit her job and stay home more often. Margaret is naturally skeptical at first, even going as far as starting to have conversations with God for the first time in her life; a new development considering that her Jewish father and lapsed Christian mom have gone out of their way to make sure their daughter can make up her own mind about religion when she’s an adult. Once there, making friends turns out to be a little easier than expected, but the pressures of growing up and becoming a women hit hard. With her friends becoming overly obsessed with cute boys, wearing bras, and getting their periods for the first time, Margaret starts to feel like she’s in danger of being left behind.

Upon its initial publication, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. became a cultural phenomenon, both praised and feared for its frank discussion of puberty and religious indifference from a female perspective. Although Craig and super-producer James L. Brooks – who previously collaborated on the terrific dramedy The Edge of Seventeen – set this adaptation of Blume’s material during the time period in which it was published, all of the themes in play remain extremely relevant, with the filmmakers’ handling of them with all the respect and nuance they deserve. Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. – both the book and the film – speaks the same language as young people, and treats them like peers, not students being lectured to, resulting in a work that’s uplifting, identifiable, and so spot on in its depiction of growing up that it’s sometimes purposefully mortifying to watch because it’s the time in a young person’s life when it feels like the universe is forcing them to decide what they want to be for the rest of their lives. It’s an existential torment around which all of these other issues revolve like the sun.

It’s a bold move on Craig’s part not to move the story into a more contemporary era, but it’s one that pays off. When modern conveniences like cell phones, the internet, and social media are stripped away, Craig is able to approach big picture issues surrounding puberty and a questioning of faith in finer detail. Devoid of modern noise to drown out the messages posed by Blume in her original novel, the film adaptation is a rare example where nostalgia for a time gone by is a smart move rather than a pandering one. There’s a pleasing amount of ambiguity to Craig’s approach here, one that young people and adults who can still remember the sting of growing up will easily understand. It’s quite adept at showcasing the timeless nature of the material, even if the decor, costuming, and soundtrack choices are as early 70s as one can get.

The first half of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. is largely focused on the puberty related issues facing Craig and Blume’s heroine, while the second half wades deeper into the stickier, equally fraught religious waters. In the early going, Margaret falls in with a group of friends who talk a lot about what it will be like when they start becoming young women and are finally noticed by boys. Viewers of any gender will easily be able to recall what it was like to feel like they knew nothing about sexuality, while it seemed like their rapidly advancing peers knew everything already. The fear and misinformation of such a time in a young person’s life is hard to capture without sounding overly dirty, and yet Craig is able to pull off a nice balance here to invite in as many viewers as possible without dumbing anything down to appease the religious types who might find such material to be a bit too spicy for young ears and eyes. To that same end, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. never claims to have all the answers when it comes to religious searching, instead showing ways where faith can be both positive and negative without sounding like its hedging its bets. In Craig’s film and Blume’s novel, the good and bad in each situation comes down to the individual talking about it and the advice being given.

Fortson is a perfect choice for Margaret, a young actor with strong dramatic capabilities and a real knack for comedic timing. She’s surrounded by equally memorable young actors Elle Graham, Amari Alexis Price, and Katherine Kupferer as Margaret’s inner circle of friends, and Aidan Wojtak-Hissong as the sweet natured boy she crushes on instead of the the cocky dude (Landon Baxter) all the other girls are head-over-heels for. McAdams shines as Margaret’s adjusting, overwhelmed mother, Barbara, whose arc is just as fascinating as the kid’s, especially when it comes to broaching the subject of how she was disowned by her devout Christian parents. Bates is a delight, and has always excelled in roles where she gets to play the fun, outspoken, sage advice dispensing relative. And it’s a joy to watch Safdie playing wildly against his usual type as a downright cuddly, caring father.

It’s hard not to get emotional watching Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret. Even for those unfamiliar with the book, and regardless of gender identity, it’s the type of straight shooting, richly details coming of age story that most people probably wish they had growing up. It’s a period piece on the surface (in more ways than one), but also something timeless and perpetually relatable. Maybe that means that the world needed time to properly catch up to Blume’s wavelength. Or perhaps that it took a talent as strong as Craig to make it all into a moving, funny, and important visual reality.

Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. opens in theatres everywhere on Friday, April 28, 2023.

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