‘Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret’ Does Justice to Judy Blume’s Classic Coming-of-Age Novel
Over 50 years after Judy Blume’s beloved novel was first published, “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” finally gets the silver screen treatment. In her first lead film role, young actress Abby Ryder Fortson gives an impressive performance as the title character, Margaret Simon, a tween girl who finds herself navigating faith, friendship, boys, and puberty in 1970 New Jersey.
The story begins the summer before Margaret is to start the sixth grade, and her parents, Barbara (Rachel McAdams) and Herb (Benny Safdie), are relocating their small family from NYC to the suburbs. This move not only means that Margaret will have to start over at a new school, but also that she will see less of her grandmother, Herb’s mother Sylvia (a terrific Kathy Bates). However, she quickly makes friends with her new neighbor, popular girl Nancy Wheeler (Ella Graham). Nancy invites her to join her all-girl secret club, which involves a lot of discussions about boys, bras, periods and the like.
But being an eleven-year-old girl is not all cozy slumber parties and rainbows, no matter what era one is in. Queen bee Nancy has a mean streak, and she gossips about a classmate, Laura Danker (Isol Young), who gets labeled a “slut” merely because she has developed early. Like most kids her age, Margaret reaches a point where she must decide if she wants to be a follower or think for herself. As for Laura, the rumors are far from true, as she is a devout Catholic. Which brings us to Margaret’s main conflict. As the child of an interfaith marriage, her parents have left it up to her to pick her own religion, and a school project inspires her to go on a spiritual quest and ask some tough questions.
A lot of books and films geared towards tweens and teens explore mean girls and raging hormones, but not enough acknowledge that a lot of young people go through a phase where they either rebel from their religious upbringing, or, if they were raised irreligious like Margaret, became curious about faith after observing the Lauras around them. Director Kelly Fremon Craig, who also wrote the adapted screenplay, handles Margaret’s quest to explore faith with much heart and sensitivity, especially in the scenes in which Barbara opens up to her daughter about how her own conservative Christian parents disowned her for marrying a Jewish man.
Meanwhile, Barbara’s own story, which runs parallel to her daughter’s, is well told here. After years of working as an art teacher, she adjusts to being a full-time homemaker. Staying home while one’s husband works was sold as the ultimate goal for middle-class women back then, but the lack of stimulation gets to Barbara, and she ends up throwing herself into volunteering at Margaret’s school. The PTA president turns out to be none other than Nancy’s mother Jan (Kate MacCluggage), who shares her daughter’s type A personality.
While “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” is geared towards tween girls, one does not have to be in middle school to enjoy it. Those of us who came of age before smart phones and WiFi will certainly get a kick out of watching Margaret and her pals as they satisfy their curiosity about sex by covertly studying anatomy books and stolen copies of Playboy. Overall, the film captures the spirit of the book very well, especially the excitement, anxiousness and fear young girls feel when they are on the verge of getting their first periods. Thankfully, outdated references to belted sanitary napkins and the dangers of tampons that were in the original novel are absent here, but we still get a funny and poignant scene of Margaret and a friend buying pads for the first time.
“Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” release April 28 in theaters nationwide.