Hard to believe, but it’s taken 53 years for Hollywood to adapt Judy Blume’s groundbreaking 1970 novel about pre-teen angst. Good things come to those who wait, however, as this big-screen version of ARE YOU THERE GOD? IT’S ME, MARGARET is one deftly done adaptation. Full of rich characterizations, wit and warmth, it’s one of the better book-to-screen transfers in some time, with major plaudits going to writer/director Kelly Fremon Craig for nailing the tone, period details, and youthful casting. Blume’s prose may have been aimed at young girls, but this film deserves a four-quadrant audience, it’s that clever and moving.
The coming-of-age story concentrates on a year in the life of 12-year-old Margaret Simon after her family moves from New York City to the suburbs of New Jersey. There, Margaret makes new friends, discovers boys, and learns plenty of valuable life lessons, all while exasperatedly waiting for her menstrual cycle to begin. It’s a candid look at not only the drama of a pre-teen’s life where everything is a big deal, but also of a more earnest time when teens could travel to the Big Apple on a bus unaccompanied by an adult and the PTA still held a lot of sway in local communities.
Abby Ryder Fortson plays Margaret, giving a naturalistic and charismatic performance that will stand as one of the year’s very best. Her Margaret can be obsessive, but she’s also mature and grounded enough to excel in relationships with her peers, her sixth grade teacher, and her boisterous grandmother Sylvia Simon (Kathy Bates, having a field day.) Margaret is a good egg, one who’s learned well from her loving parents, Barbara (Rachel McAdams) and Herb (Benny Sadfie, famed filmmaker of UNCUT GEMS). The young girl is even clever enough to start asking existential questions of God in an ongoing conversation with the deity. (Hence, the title.) Margaret questions many aspects of God’s plan for her, especially the delay in her maturing process. As much as the film’s story makes hay about girls’ periods, it’s all handling tastefully, and more often than not, amusedly.
Margaret’s friends are rendered superbly by young actresses Elle Graham, Amari Alexis Price, and Katherine Mallen Kupferer, and each has a lot to do on screen. The scenes where they chat about boys, navigate school work, and exercise to increase their bosoms are both touching and hilarious. Still, as much as Margaret worries about such modest matters, she’s sweating some of the big stuff too. Her search for the spiritual leads her to brushes with both the Jewish and Catholic religions. Her parents are mixed, but have eschewed practicing either due to Barbara’s Christian parents disowning her after marrying a man of Jewish faith. They’ve chose to leave a pursuit of such matters up to Margaret and she makes quite a study of it in her own way during the narrative.
Most of the story is lighter than that, told episodically, showcasing an amusing game of “Spin the Bottle” at a classmate’s birthday party here, a buoyant trip to NYC with her grandmother there. And as amusing as most of the film is, it’s the more dramatic scenes that register the most. Margaret’s owning up to her wrongful teasing of a first-to-mature classmate Laura (Isol Young) is quietly heartbreaking. So too are the scenes showing McAdams’ well-meaning mom struggling to find purpose in her life. McAdams’ portrayal of motherhood is one of the best ever showcased on film and her work here deserves to be remembered at awards season.
If there’s any downside to the film, it’s that so many other movies clearly influenced by Blume made it to the screen long before this one. Films like Craig’s own 2016 THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN and Bo Burnham’s EIGHTH GRADE trafficked in such similar themes, at times this film feels almost antiquated. Still, Craig’s commitment to the material and her deft touch with all of it ensures it remains compelling from first moment to last, even if the story felt more unique 50 years ago.
Ultimately, it’s great to see Blume’s landmark book given such a smart adaptation, and on the big screen no less. Such stories deserve cineplex audiences as much as any superhero adventure or spy thriller. Come to think of it, Margaret should strike most as a more admirable female hero than most any in the MCU or horror universes. She’s bright, loving, giving, funny, and quirky too – as well-rounded a female character as any played recently by the likes of Streep, Chastain, or Blanchett. Are you there, audiences? It’s Margaret calling, and she wants you to to come see her wonderful story pronto.