It’s tough to capture the splash that Judy Blume’s “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” made upon its publication in 1970. The young adult novel was considered radical for its time: brutally honest about female development, menstruation, masturbation, and all the uncomfortable and wonderful humor that comes with adolescent development.
The book still courts controversy, appearing on the occasional banned book list, much to the author’s mischievous delight and dismay. Blume sits at the center of a new documentary premiering at the Sundance Film Festival, “Judy Blume Forever,” reflecting on her legacy then, now, and hurtling into the future.
Directors Davina Pardo and Leah Wolchok frame the latter half of the 20th-century as something of a Blume-verse: so many writers and artists and publishers were touched by the novelist’s realism and touching sensitivity towards the uncomfortable subjects in life. They’ve gathered a host of talking heads (Anna Konkle, Tayari Jones, Lena Dunham, Mary H.K. Choi, and Samantha Bee, to name a few) to laud the author’s works. Appearing at center stage and for the bulk of the economic runtime is Blume herself, spritely and funny, eager to share her life story with an audience so obviously adoring.
Blume’s story is certainly incredible, if only for how mundane and regular she makes it all seem. A well-educated girlhood in Elizabeth, New Jersey led her to New York University, where she studied education and married a man a few years her senior. It was not until she was a practicing homemaker with two small children that Blume began making up and writing stories. Her early work catered, somewhat unsuccessfully, to a very young audience, but she aimed for older kids after she was tipped off by her publisher that they were always looking for books for middle-school readers.
Blume’s young-adult literature is her most well-known, from the aforementioned “Are You There, God?” to “Deenie,” “Blubber,” and many more. In the event one or more of these novels has slipped the audience’s mind, don’t worry, because “Judy Blume Forever” is content to excerpt several of them with Blume’s narration and colorful, abstract animations. While it’s great to hear Blume read her own work, such a significant portion of the documentary is focused on excerpting that it might have been more time-saving to assign the books to the audience ahead of time.
Flourishes like these suggest that Pardo and Wolchok weren’t capable of hitting their runtime, relying heavily on filling the ninety-something minutes with repetitive B-roll and old photos from Blume’s life. She is often asked to recount more upsetting portions of her life, including a drawn-out and painful recall of the passing of her father, with whom she was very close. Talk-show snippets are scattered throughout that feature a stylish, albeit repetitive, Blume. Despite her genius, there is only so much that she and others have to say about her work. She believes, wholeheartedly, in its realism and honesty. This hasn’t changed over her half-century long career. Despite the stylish gimmicks and mash-up tricks, “Judy Blume Forever” often suffers from the curse of biography — it is not always remarkable to go through someone’s life chronologically, even if their work is remarkable.
The most interesting semblance of a narrative — and perhaps the most unknown part of Blume’s story — is the way in which her longtime fans considered her a pen pal, whom they wrote and from whom they received replies. Like the titular Margaret, these young women wrote to Blume with all kinds of questions about their bodies, their relationships, their families, and their feelings.
More interesting than any of the celebrity talking heads is a woman named Lorrie Kim with whom Blume corresponded throughout her youth. Her loneliness, confusion, and complicated relationship to her family led her to Blume as a surrogate counselor, friend, and parent. The excerpts from Kim’s letters are just as funny, honest, and open as Blume’s work. That Blume remained a presence in Kim’s life all the way up through adulthood is a wonderful detail in a documentary that suffers from too few of them.
Blume now spends her days in Key West, where she is an involved presence in the bookstore she runs. Perhaps “Judy Blume Forever” feels a little too normal because that was always the gift of Blume: She was not an unapproachable genius marred by rhetoric, nor was she a poppy, fad writer. Her works have remained timeless because of their approachable regularity. As Blume often reminds her young writers and fans, what they’re going through is something everyone goes through. “Judy Blume Forever” acts as a pertinent reminder that authors can be human, even unremarkably so.
“Judy Blume Forever” streams globally on Prime Video April 21.