Synopsis: When her family moves from the city to the suburbs, 11-year-old Margaret navigates new friends, feelings, and the beginning of adolescence.
Stars: Rachel McAdams, Abby Ryder Fortson, Elle Graham, Benny Safdie, Kathy Bates
Director: Kelly Fremon Craig
Running Length: 105 minutes
TMMM Score: (9.5/10)
Review: In preparing for this review, I looked over the various covers of Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, that have been released over the years, and marveling at how the front designs have changed with the times. A simple artist sketch in the first publication followed a more detailed illustration for the school paperback, giving way to a literal photographic interpretation of the central character on a recent reissue. Some designs are sparse, with only the title and a small flourish to make it pop or tie into a series of Blume YA novels. If you’ve read the book over the last five decades, you may spot a familiar scene depicted or any number of artist renderings of Margaret.
What hasn’t changed is what’s inside the front and back covers: the landmark story that Blume first published in 1970 and has remained a top-selling favorite among its target audience (growing young adults) as well as a hot-button issue for those that contest it being made available to that very population due to its mature subject matter. Countless books get their movie rights snapped up, often before they are even published, but Blume has always guarded her material closely and seldom grants requests to anyone for adaptation. With the book approaching its 50th anniversary, she put her trust in writer/director Kelly Fremon Craig and experienced producer James L. Brooks (Terms of Endearment) so that they could finally bring her gem of a novel to life for a new generation.
The summer before sixth grade has been good for sensitive Margaret Simon (Abby Ryder Fortson, Ant-Man and the Wasp). She’s spent it at sleepaway camp in upstate New York and made a host of new friends, and while she’s wistful to see it end, she’s excited to get back home to see her parents and grandmother Sylvia (Kathy Bates, Richard Jewell). The warm fuzzies don’t last long because before mom Barbara (Rachel McAdams, Game Night) and dad Herb (Benny Safdie, Licorice Pizza) can break it to her gently, Sylvia spills the beans that the three of them are moving to New Jersey. Leaving her friends, her spry grandmother, and the allure of the Big Apple behind is tragic to Margaret, but she’s assured this new beginning and a new job for her father will be the first step in accomplishing shared family goals.
It’s an adjustment for everyone. A former art teacher, the free-spirited Barbara is now a stay-at-home mother and throws herself into the suburban PTA domestic life while Margaret begins the school year with a leg up on the social circuit. She’s living close to Nancy Wheeler (Elle Green, She Said), a popular girl that wears a bra and expects all of her friends to wear one too, not that Margaret or Janie (Amari Alexis Price) or Gretchen (Katherine Kupferer, Widows) need one yet. That’s an embarrassing bridge to cross over with their mothers (definitely NOT their fathers) at a date yet to be determined, preferably in a neighboring town.
The real issue weighing on Margaret isn’t the pressure from her friends about identifying each part of their changing bodies and highlighting who is growing faster and hitting milestones first, but in the tumult growing in her household. A child of interfaith parents, she realizes that with a Christian mother and Jewish father, their hands-off approach to religion and preference to let her make up her mind has left her even more confused about what she believes. So she begins to have (often nightly) conversations with God, probing discussions about her tiny corner of the world and its major impacts. As the school year goes on and adolescent hormones start to rear their raging head, Margaret and her friends experience the pains of growing up, the beauty of understanding yourself, and the joy of owning your path toward adulthood.
Blume’s wonderfully rich and insightful novel had been around for eleven years when director Kelly Fremon Craig was born, and Blume was wise to wait for her to grow up to adapt it for the big screen. A thread of confidence runs through the core of each film frame that gives it such power that it’s almost like electricity. Even if the performances weren’t so incredible, I think it would still have been a high achievement. Blessedly, the stars have aligned, and Fremon Craig landed the perfect actors to play these roles many of us had imagined over the years.
Margaret Simon is a literary figure many young girls looked up to, and many boys had come to understand by reading Blume’s novel. Fortson embodies the character, all the emotional highs and lows, with marvelous grace – she understands Blume’s creation at its very center. The young actors from top to bottom are strong, from Margaret’s close friends to the well-cast members of her class (I was howling with delight at the one boy in class no one wants to be paired with), and Safdie continues to prove himself as interesting an actor as he is in the director’s chair. It’s a pleasure to see Bates all dolled up, looking like she just stepped out of Bergdorf Goodman and getting the chance to play a little broad comedy again. She needs to do more of it.
Though it’s Margaret’s movie, no question, I have to say that I was knocked out by what McAdams was doing in her supporting role. McAdams has always happily flown under the radar in Hollywood, content to do good work with strong directors and her fellow co-stars. She is attracted to roles that she can get passionate about no matter how high profile they are, and while I doubt she took this film thinking she’d get buckets of bouquets, I wouldn’t count her out for a strong Oscar push for Supporting Actress. Fremon Craig allows Barbara to grow in a different kind of awakening, and McAdams leaves us as wide-eyed as she is.
The kind of tear-jerker that gets them out of you without resorting to cheap rug pulls or by going down the expected routes, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret represents the correct way to adapt a beloved novel. Patience is a virtue and key in ensuring you have found the right team to hand over something special. In my recent review of the document Judy Blume Forever, I expressed my eternal thanks to the author for providing us with rich characters and novels that helped us feel less lonely as we grew up. Now, there’s a movie that gives a similar feeling.