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My Thoughts on Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret
Although her books have sold over 82 million copies over the years and have served as literary touchstones for generations of kids, there has, until now, only been one screen adaptation of one of the works of beloved author Judy Blume, a small-scale adaptation of her 1981 novel Tiger Eyes that she co-wrote with her son Lawrence, who also directed, about a decade ago. (There have been a couple of television adaptations over the years as well.) This may seem slightly baffling on paper but in hindsight, the very things that have made her works so memorable and lasting are the very things that are the trickiest for anyone trying to adapt her to the screen to pull off. For one, her authorial voice—always gentle, witty and sincere and without any sense of lecturing or scolding—is one of those that is so distinct and so vital to the success of her books that unless a filmmaker can hit upon the cinematic equivalent, the venture is practically doomed from the start. (Even the aforementioned Tiger Eyes, despite its undeniable sincerity, didn’t quite manage to pull this off.) For another, many of her most notable books have tackled serious subject matter—sex, death, divorce, bullying, the pains of adolescence—in a manner so direct and forthright that they still seem fairly radical, not to mention lightning rods for controversy, decades after their original publication and which cannot be removed or reduced without rendering their narratives useless.
Like so many people my age, I devoured Blume’s books during my childhood—she was perhaps the only person writing for younger readers whose work I actually responded to (I had already gone to full-on “grown-up” books by this time, much to the consternation of numerous teachers)—and of them, my favorite was probably Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, her landmark 1970 work about a 12-year-old girl who, over the course of the year charted in the story, experienced everything from the horrors of moving from New York City to New Jersey to questions about religious identity to the pressures and anxieties, both physical and emotional, brought on by the onset of puberty. Obviously, a number of the issues brought up in the story were ones that I never had or never would specifically experience for myself but nevertheless, it was written in such a smart, warm and knowing matter that I still found myself learning things about myself and others that might not have otherwise occurred to me back then. Admittedly, it has been years since I last read it but I can still recall parts from it so vividly that it is as if I just put it down yesterday.
Due to the combination of my love for the book and my awareness of the difficulties of translating Blume to the screen, I admit that I went into the long-awaited screen adaptation of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret with a certain amount of trepidation. Granted, I have seen plenty of bad movies based on books that I have loved over the years but the idea of a slipshod version of this particular tome would have been kind of devastating to endure. As it turns out, that pre-show worry was for nothing because writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig has come up with a film that is as emotionally complex and effortlessly charming as its source material and which manages to preserve Blume’s voice while still working as its own thing. The result is a film that is, in its own way, just as wise and wonderfully entertaining as the book and that is saying something.
Set in 1970, the film opens as 11-year-old Margaret Simon (Abby Ryder Fortson) arrives home ready to begin sixth grade when her parents, Barbara (Rachel McAdams) and Herb (Benny Safdie), drop a bomb on her—they are going to be moving from their New York apartment to a house in the suburbs of New Jersey. This is devastating news for Margaret—it means leaving behind both her friends and her beloved paternal grandmother, Sylvia (Kathy Bates) and facing the mysteries of sixth grade on her own—but she decides to make the best of it. However, although she has no particular religious affiliation of her own—due to the blowback resulting from their own interfaith marriage, her parents have decided to allow her to decide that question for herself when she feels ready—she does frequently voice her anxieties to God through a series of talks that begin with the statement that gives the story its title.
Almost immediately, Margaret is taken under the wing of Nancy (Elle Graham), a particularly confident neighbor girl her age who recruits her to join a secret club that she has formed with two other classmates, Janie (Amara Alexis Price) and Gretchen (Katherine Kupferer), where they discuss boys they have crushes on, do exercises that are certain to increase their bust size and, most importantly, await the arrival of their first menstrual periods. When both Gretchen and Nancy get their periods first, Margaret begins to feel like a freak and her confusion leads her to lash out at another classmate whose early developments have made her the target of cruel rumors, many of them spread by Nancy. Meanwhile, Margaret also finds herself considering her spiritual issues and religious identity via a year-long classroom assignment that finds her visiting different places of worship and goes in an unexpected direction when her mother’s parents, whom she has been estranged from for the past 14 years, make an unexpected visit after receiving a Christmas card that Barbara impulsively sent to them.
Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret marks the long-awaited second directorial effort from Craig, following her 2016 debut The Edge of Seventeen. In many ways, that film—which told the story of a teen girl still reeling from the death of her father who discovers that her best friend is now dating her older brother—bore the clear influence of Blume (it was like a funnier version of Tiger Eyes in many ways) while demonstrating that she also had a distinct eye and ear for the ways in which teenagers think and act that was far more incisive than the majority of movies made for and about them. (I would cheerfully take it over all of the inexplicably venerated teen films of John Hughes without a moment’s hesitation.) Based on the results of that film, she was clearly the ideal candidate to try to shepherd this particular project to the screen but what she has done here is pretty extraordinary.
Although she sticks pretty closely to the original text—even keeping it set in 1970, when the book was originally published, rather than undertaking a potentially misguided attempt to set the story in contemporary times—what she does here is more than simply taking the book and putting it before the camera. Instead, she has taken the material and figured out a way to balance it with her own personal sensibilities as a storyteller and the results are frequently wonderful. To take just one example, consider the scene in which Margaret and Janie decide to screw up their courages and buy themselves each a box of sanitary napkins from the local drugstore. As it plays out, the film beautifully encapsulates the shifting senses of nervousness, embarrassment and relief as the two make their way from the shelves to the counter to the parking lot that Blume described so eloquently on the page. At the same time, in a touch that I do not think was in the original book, Craig adds an additional bit by having Margaret impulsively add a thing of Tic-Tacs to the napkins, as though the one would somehow mitigate the other in the eyes of the bored kid behind the counter. This is funny, to be sure, but what really makes it work is that it doesn’t feel like a joke, per se, but as a little slice of real life that anyone stuck making a potentially embarrassing purchase will instantly recognize.
In addition to her deft handling of both the comedic and dramatic material, which she moves between with the same amount of deftness and grace that she demonstrated in The Edge of Seventeen, Craig once again shows that she possesses a strong gift for working with actors as well. All of the members of the cast do nice jobs of bringing the characters that have been living in the minds of readers for a half-century to full and vivid life. Bates is pitch-perfect as Sylvia, Graham is appropriately irritating as the increasingly snotty Nancy (and also pulls off the tricky moment in which ones of her lies is exposed in the most potentially humiliating manner imaginable) and Isol Young, playing the classmate who developed early, is absolutely heartbreaking in one scene where Margaret, upset about other things, uncharacteristically lashes out at her by unthinkingly parroting the snide things Nancy has said.
As Margaret, Fortson captures all of the confusion of adolescence in astonishing detail, from the combination of excitement and fear she experiences when around her unspoken crush to her attempts to come to terms with the new feelings that she is being bombarded with over the course of the story. Best of all is McAdams, who turns in what may be the best performance of her entire career as the warmest and kindest movie mom in recent memory. At the same time, she makes Barbara into a real and recognizable character in her own right and with her own issues and does so with such precision that it might not even register to some just how good she really is until after the film is over. There is a scene that she has at one point involving a bird that she spies outside her house and while I won’t go into it any further than that, I very much doubt I will see another actor come close to approaching what she is able to accomplish with what might have just been a throwaway moment at best in most other films. This is legitimately great work and while this is not the kind of performance that is likely to turn up as part of the award talk that will begin in earnest in a couple of months, it is more than worthy of such consideration.
Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret is a fairly quiet and laid-back movie—even the big emotional moments are not wildly overplayed—but that does not make it any less impressive of a work. It is, of course, an ideal film for younger viewers—it tackles issues that are of importance to them with humor and sensitivity without ever giving them the sense that they are being talked down to—but adults, whether they have children of their own or not, will respond to it well because of the quality of the filmmaking on display. The film also proves that Kelly Fremon Craig is indeed the real thing and that anyone who cares about movies these days should keep an eye out for anything she does in the immediate future. Of course, no movie, good or bad, could ever replace Blume’s original classic but this film proves to be a more than worthy complement to it that may well go onto to be as cherished and revered as the book itself.