Judy Blume was long resistant to a film adaptation of her beloved 1970 novel Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.
Now in the fifth decade of a career spent reimagining what fiction for children and young adults could be, the author worried that the story — which has endured across three generations of readers — would be mishandled and the 11-year-old girl at its centre misunderstood.
After a meeting with director Kelly Fremon Craig and veteran producer James L. Brooks, who had previously teamed up for 2016’s The Edge of Seventeen, Blume finally saw a vision worth greenlighting. Hallelujah. Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret is charming and true, freshening its timeless source material.
A classic story of girlhood, puberty and religious belonging, Are You There God?‘s Margaret Simon (played by Abby Ryder Fortson in the film) finds out that she and her parents, Barbara (Rachel McAdams) and Herb (Benny Safdie), are relocating from New York City to a New Jersey suburb. Margaret is sure it will be a disaster: She’ll have to leave her friends, switch schools and never see Grandma Sylvia again.
Of course, she makes new friends, school isn’t so bad and Grandma Sylvia (Kathy Bates) is just across the Hudson, for God’s sake. Oh yeah, God — Margaret regularly checks in with the creator. Can God give her a leg-up in the bra department, where she feels woefully flat? Can God help her decide between her father’s Judaism and her mother’s Christianity? Can God give her a sign, any sign, that somebody is out there listening?
WATCH | The trailer for the film Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret:
A screen version of Are You There God? could have fallen into numerous traps, bogged down by lofty expectations or contrived attempts to appeal to a modern preteen audience.
Rather than burden Margaret with a cellphone or try to make the setting contextually ambiguous, the film takes pleasure in the 1970s: its warm lighting, earthy tones and avocado greens — even its Jell-O salads.
Fortson, who was 12 or 13 when filming began, gracefully captures that prepubescent agony of waiting for life to begin. You feel the urgency, shame and wonder that Margaret does, and, best of all, Fortson plays for laughs: I had tears in my eyes during a well-timed cut after the girls pick up a Playboy magazine, flipping straight to the centrefold.
An expanded storyline for Barbara that was absent from the novel is a surprise and a delight. McAdams, a sweet and funny performer who comes naturally to the character, ensures that the audience is just as invested in mother as it is in daughter. This film knows its audience, and it understands the parent-child symbiosis: Everything that happens to Margaret is happening to Barbara, too.
Grandma Sylvia’s character also gets her moment in the sun, leading to some interesting ideas about aging and companionship that, while not fully realized, bring further texture to a multigenerational story for multigenerational viewers.
Where Are You There God? fumbles, ever so slightly, is in its sometimes surface-level treatment of the story’s religious predicament. I’d hoped that the film would have a more tangible explanation of Barbara and Herb’s own relationships to religion, or let us in on the importance of religion to Sylvia’s life. As such, a climactic confrontation scene between both sides of the family feels like a misstep.
But this is a coming-of-age story as much as it is one about faith. Are You There God? is in the tradition of recent female-led films like the aforementioned The Edge of Seventeen, as well as Lady Bird and Eighth Grade, in that it treats its young female characters with a gentle respect they’re not often afforded.
It’s especially telling that it doesn’t cut corners on more complicated characters like Nancy Wheeler, Margaret’s bossy new friend who projects her insecurities on to the people around her, or Laura Danker, a reserved early bloomer whose changing body elicits gawks and nasty rumours from her classmates.
The movie arrives at a curious time, when a renewed drive to censor books for young people has come full circle back to Are You There God? — which, since it was published, has remained one of the most frequently challenged works for daring to broach the subject of female puberty.
For those who had access to it, reading the book could feel like a milestone in itself, just as much as getting your first period or having a first kiss. This reviewer remembers her own preteen triumph when Mom at last decided that she was old enough to borrow the book from the library, having read it herself around the same age.
“It’s not for the kids, although they can go — they’re welcome to go, I hope they do,” Blume recently said in an interview. She’s a producer on the project and makes a blink-and-you-miss-it cameo. “It’s a nostalgia piece. And it’s really for the people who grew up with it.”
Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret is in theatres on Friday.