As Judy Blume is one of the best-selling children’s/young adult authors over the past 50+ years, it’s natural to assume that her various books would have been adapted many times over. However, save for a handful of mostly forgettable entries, both on TV and in theaters, Blume’s stories have remained solely on paper.
Her seminal 1970 YA book, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, has finally come to the big screen, and despite taking place in the past, its story is as resonant as ever. Margaret (Abby Ryder Fortson) is an 11-year-old girl in the early 1970s who, much to her and her grandmother’s (Kathy Bates) chagrin, moves from New York City to New Jersey with her mom, Barbara (Rachel McAdams), and dad, Herb (Benny Safdie), when Herb gets a new job.
Margaret is quickly taken into a friend group led by Nancy Wheeler (Elle Graham), who is obsessed with all things puberty-related, like getting her first period, growing breasts, and what boys everyone likes. Margaret, in order to assimilate, goes along with the fixation, with some reluctance. At the same time, she – the non-religious daughter of a Christian mother and Jewish father – starts exploring different aspects of religion, including her own private dialogue with God.
The reason it’s taken this particular book so long to be adapted is because the now 85-year-old Blume would not previously allow it. But it appears Blume was right in waiting so long, as writer/director Kelly Fremon Craig has made a film that’s almost miraculous in its empathy and storytelling. Taking a cue from Blume, who released her book at a time when its subject matter was far more taboo, Craig tackles the story’s tricky topics with forthright honesty that’s still family-friendly.
There have certainly been many movies and TV shows through the years that have dealt with puberty, but Craig sets this film apart thanks to the upfront nature of how the pre-teen characters talk about their thoughts and the humor with which the film deals with them. As any adult knows, puberty is a natural part of life, and Craig makes sure to treat it as such with no reservations.
There are big laughs that come throughout thanks to the period – no pun intended – details. Every realization that Margaret has about the realities of puberty, from the size of the menstruation pads to the discomfort of bras, is hilarious to witness. The production design also does a great job at re-creating the feel of the era, something older audience members will appreciate.
The religious part of the film plays a big role, and Craig impresses in this aspect, as well. Without putting her thumb on the scale in any way, the filmmaker has Margaret go to multiple different places of worship to see what they have to offer. Religion can often be a lightning rod, but here it’s dealt with in a straightforward manner, allowing Margaret – and the audience – to see the pros and cons for herself.
The adults are typically an afterthought in kid-centric movies like this, but Craig smartly gives them more to do than just be a support system for Margaret. Barbara is shown adjusting to being a stay-at-home mom, and her family backstory grounds the film even more than it already is. Margaret’s teacher Mr. Benedict (Echo Kellum) only has a few scenes, but each of them is impactful. The film's treatment of adult relationships is just as responsible for the success of the film as the kid friendships.
Fortson is darn near perfect as Margaret, infusing her with a wide-eyed wonder, enthusiasm, and sense of purpose. McAdams is also wonderful, turning into an ideal-yet-realistic mother. Safdie initially seems like an odd choice, but he acquits himself well. Bates is a joy to watch, even if having her play a Jewish grandmother feels a little off. And the child actors are uniformly fun and interesting, especially Elle Graham and Isol Young.
Nearly every part of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret works like a charm, and not just as a movie for pre-teens/teenagers. Blume’s story has always been a universal one, and this gem of a film lives up to its legacy in every way.
Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret opens in theaters on April 28.