Ask any young woman about the book that changed their life and most will, in some form, mention Judy Blume’s 1970 novel “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.” The story of an 11-year-old girl trying to navigate middle school and puberty has been the subject of banned book lists and was perceived as unfilmable — both because of Blume’s protectiveness over the material and the novel’s frank look at menstruation.
Director Kelly Fremon Craig is no stranger to young women in a state of transition, having helmed the equally wonderful “Edge of Seventeen” in 2016. Her take on “Are You There God” is filled with heart and isn’t afraid to talk about all the topics that made Blume’s novel so controversial. At times, the feature is jarring in how overt it discusses periods, bras, and tween girls’ desire to grow up too fast. Concurrently, it’s such a sweet, simple slice of life movie that wears its nostalgic heart on its sleeve.
Margaret Simon (Abby Ryder Fortson) has recently moved from the wilds of New York City to the suburbs of New Jersey with her parents. She quickly makes friends but struggles to understand their rampant desires, that includes wanting to wear a bra and desperately wishing for their periods. Along the way, Margaret’s mother, Barbara (Rachel McAdams) must deal with a conflict involving her own parentage as well as her hope to see Margaret grow up on her own terms.
So much of what makes “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” is how earnest everyone is. In an era where twentysomethings are playing teens, there is an immediate disconnect in seeing 11-year-olds play 11-year-olds. But newcomer Abby Ryder Fortson is just perfect as Margaret. Her Margaret comes into the world just looking for connection. Up until she meets Nancy (Elle Graham), Margaret never thought to imagine she might not be on the same level as her peers, and what Craig’s script examines is how young girls are so often conditioned to believe they’re falling short.
It’s why the need to have a strong parental figure in the film is so paramount and Rachel McAdams — who made teen movies her own with 2003’s “Mean Girls” — comes full circle as Margaret’s mother. The scenes between Margaret and Barbara are delightfully sweet, if only to remind you of all the painfully awkward moments most women have had with their mothers.
Barbara so desperately wants to be supportive of her daughter, taking her to the mall to buy a training bra and sympathizing with Margaret when she says “I immediately want to take it off.” With a big grin chronically plastered on her face, McAdams plays Barbara as a woman trying to figure out her own mess while refusing to show it to her family.
The addition of a subplot involving Barbara’s parents, and the struggles of antisemitism, doesn’t land as poignantly as it probably should. However, it does give McAdams and Safdie a chance to play off each other. Safdie, to his credit, has the minor role of Herb, Margaret’s dad. He’s charming as can be that it’s easy to see why McAdams’ Barbara would have given up everything for him. But the plot never transcends beyond the ancillary.
Where the film is at its strongest is watching Margaret and her friends interact. Ryder leads a stellar group of young girls, all of whom should have bright futures ahead of them. Graham is especially dynamic as Nancy, the presumed popular girl of the group whose final moments of screentime show just how little she actually knows.
Cinematographer Tim Ives, production designer Steve Saklad and costume designer Ann Roth all show an impeccable flair for the 1970s world depicted on-screen. Rites of passage like the first party Margaret goes to are beautifully rendered with a sheen that feels like you’re watching a 1970s movie.
For all the heavy adolescent stuff Margaret endures, Craig’s script never wallows in the struggles of puberty. There’s always a humorous twist to things, whether that’s Margaret and her friends looking at copies of “Playboy” magazine and doing bust-enhancing exercises or Margaret’s interactions with her grandmother, Sylvia (Kathy Bates). Bates, in particular, is in fine form here with witty bon mots and a fantastic rapport with Fortson.
In a landscape with few movies for families, and even fewer for tween girls, “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” is a fantastic entry. Heartfelt, compassionate, funny, and frank it has the makings of becoming a new classic in the film canon.
“Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” hits theaters April 28.