Director: Kelly Fremon Craig
Cast: Rachel McAdams, Kathy Bates, Abby Ryder Fortson
Release: August 7th 2023 (Blu-ray, DVD & Digital)
When it comes to controversial authors, one name that may surprise people is Judy Blume. Known for her teen novels, she was among the most frequently challenged novelists in the 21st century by the American Library Association – but this has not stopped her from highlighting adult issues to teen audiences. 53 years after its initial release, one of her most successful novels is finally getting the cinematic treatment, starring Rachel McAdams, Kathy Bates and Abby Ryder Fortson.
Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret is set in 1970, following 11-year-old Margaret Simon (Fortson) as she moves with her parents, Jewish dad Herb (Benny Safdie) and Christian mum Barbara (McAdams), from New York City to Delano, New Jersey. While she gets to grips with making new friends at a new school, she is confronted with newfound anxieties about puberty, religion and boys.
Directed and adapted by The Edge of Seventeen director Kelly Fremon Craig, the film brilliantly sets up Margaret as a child becoming an adult. On the verge of becoming 12, her passage into adulthood is fast-tracked by the presence of new friend Nancy (Elle Graham), a girl who, despite being the same age, is boastful about being a grown-up (defined by her kissing practice and her wearing a two-piece swimsuit). Despite her evident immaturity about her “maturity”, Nancy’s frankness sets Margaret on a journey that forms the quintessential coming-of-age narrative – a pre-teen growing up into a young adult with an independent mind.
Craig also does an excellent job highlighting the pressure among young adults who are quick to condemn their peers for being behind or even ahead when it comes to puberty. The wayward gossip among her friends about their classmates, especially the tall and more developed Laura Danker (Isol Young), creates an underlying tension that exacerbates Margaret’s confusion and her desperation to reach certain pubertal milestones, just to keep up with her social circle. This also highlights the protagonist’s child-like innocence, not to mention Blume’s candidness about issues that would be considered taboo as the characters’ openness (with a hint of awkwardness) about bras, menstruation, and boobs reflects a refreshing honesty that strikes the hearts of pre-teen audiences.
But it is not just boys and boobs that are messing with Margaret’s mind – she is caught in the middle of her parents’ conflicting religions (Judaism versus Christianity), which sees her missing out on holidays such as Christmas and Hannukah. But even this doesn’t stop her from turning to God for spiritual guidance, providing a private, ironic yet necessary outlet for her inner angst, which further reinforces the candour of Blume’s novel. As the film goes on, Margaret’s confusion about religion masks her own struggles with growing up to create an endearing juxtaposition that shows the road to adulthood is not just hormonal but also spiritual.
While her dilemmas with pads, bras and kissing provide moments of hilarity, it is her religious dilemma that hits the hardest as it offers bouts of self-reflection and drama that add depth to the narrative. Although most of this is reflected through Margaret, certain moments are conveyed through Barbara, a teacher-turned-full-time housewife, who is getting to grips with being a hands-on parent while remembering how religion affected her family. Both characters have their own contention about religion, but neither is quick to preach or side with a specific one to appease others, reiterating the need and significance for personal independence – a lesson that seems to brush past Herb’s outspoken yet supportive mother Sylvia (Kathy Bates) and Barbara’s conservative parents.
The variety of cast performances helps to elevate this tension to something incredibly endearing and relatable. McAdams brings a poignant performance as a struggling creative with no outlet, and Bates delivers sass and heart as Margaret’s unconditional confidant. However, the show is stolen by Fortson, who previously played Cassie in Ant-Man and Ant-Man and the Wasp. She subtly conveys her character’s bewilderment, anger and innocence through her expressive and charming performance. This extends to Margaret’s honest interactions with God, so her voiceovers are consistently insightful and never mundane.
Following her success with The Edge of Seventeen, Craig is faithful to the emotional dilemmas of Judy Blume’s original novel. Keeping the narrative in the 1970s allows Craig to incorporate amusing anecdotes within the production design while the witty script beautifully relays the beauty of the narrative. The direction is also spot on – a gentle blend of whimsy and charm, Craig doesn’t lose sight of Margaret and the relationships around her to further her maturity and groundedness as a protagonist.
It has taken decades for Blume’s best-loved novels to get to the cinematic treatment, and Craig’s adaptation does it justice. Although the film is from the 1970s, Margaret’s life lessons – awkward as they may be – are just as integral to modern audiences and Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret boldly addresses them with heart, intelligence and care. Combined with the lovely performances and the light-hearted soundtrack, it is one of this year’s sleeper hits.
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