Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.
2023, PG-13, 106 min. Directed by Kelly Fremon Craig. Starring Abby Ryder Fortson, Rachel McAdams, Kathy Bates, Benny Safdie, Elle Graham, Amari Alexis Price, Katherine Mallen Kupferer.
REVIEWED By Trace Sauveur, Fri., April 28, 2023
Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. is not the first page-to-screen adaptation of a Judy Blume novel, but it is the one that has attracted the most interest from studios over the years in potentially making the jump. Blume had rejected numerous offers to turn her seminal 1970 coming-of-age grade school novel into a film but finally came around to selling the rights to Kelly Fremon Craig and James L. Brooks, the producing duo behind Fremon Craig's poignant 2016 feature debut as a writer/director, The Edge of Seventeen.
One can only assume Blume saw that film and recognized a filmmaker that understood the moving, gentle heart that encompasses her own work. It’s true: The Edge of Seventeen and Are You There God? share such a corresponding worldview and refreshing honesty about their characters as they face the realities of growing up that Fremon Craig feels so obviously fated to be the one to adapt this material. Even as someone who has never read the source material – I’m not exactly the target audience – Blume’s legacy is so encompassing it would be hard not to have a passing understanding of the ambitions within her work, and it seems evident that this is the ideal version to arrive on theatre screens.
At the start of the film, we meet 12-year-old Margaret Simon (Fortson) just as her life begins to be uprooted in varying ways. First, her parents, Barbara (McAdams) and Herb (Safdie), announce that they're moving from the hustle and bustle of New York City to the quaint suburbs of New Jersey, essentially moving away from Margaret’s entire childhood, including her grandmother Sylvia (Bates).
The move acts as a sudden catalyst for all the confusing changes that come with hitting puberty: Her new friends are always talking about boys, bra sizes, and dreaming about the day they’ll finally get their periods. She also becomes conscious of the tensions simmering underneath her family’s seemingly tranquil dynamics: Her devoutly Christian grandparents disowned her mom for marrying a Jewish man, and now Barbara and Herb refuse to push any religion onto their daughter. Tactful parenting for sure, but Margaret can’t help but see it as another roadblock to knowing who she truly is. She regularly talks to a God she isn’t sure is real, pleading for everything to work out.
Blume has been regularly lauded and criticized for her frank depictions of what it’s like as a young girl moving into her teenage years and, if it wasn’t obvious already, Fremon Craig’s film embodies that same sense of candor. It feels revelatory in the midst of intensified, irrational culture wars led by Facebook-addict parents terrified of their children learning about their own bodies from library books; the film is guided by the understated charm of Blume’s material and Fremon Craig’s interpretation of it, but the significance a film like this holds for tween girls is enormous and riveting.
For everyone else, there’s still plenty to love here. The straightforward earnestness of the material may take a minute to settle into but a magnetic cast and heartfelt writing ensure that this is basically impossible to resist. Fortson is effortlessly endearing in the title role, Safdie continues to prove that he has an indelible screen presence in his own right, and McAdams shines as a mom just trying to be a good mother to her daughter (this film’s depiction of two genuinely caring, empathetic parents feels like some sort of tonic). If the drama feels occasionally slight, read it as a way in which the film is asking you to understand the perspective of its central character — for Margaret, it’s momentous. And for me, the twentysomething guy in a Bride of the Monster T-shirt and Dr. Martens seeing this movie solo, well, I left choked up seeing something so assiduously warm and sincere.