Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret., 2023
Written and Directed by Kelly Fremon Craig.
Starring Abby Ryder Fortson, Rachel McAdams, Kathy Bates, Benny Safdie, Wilbur Fitzgerald, Elle Graham, Amari Alexis Price, Katherine Mallen Kupferer, Kate MacCluggage, Landon S. Baxter, Mackenzie Joy Potter, Olivia Williams, Simons May, Ethan McDowell, Echo Kellum, Zackary Brooks, Isol Young, Mia Dillon, JeCobi Swain, Gary Houston, Aidan Wojtak-Hissong, and Sloane Warren.
When her family moves from the city to the suburbs, 11-year-old Margaret navigates new friends, feelings, and the beginning of adolescence.
It’s no coincidence that writer/director Kelly Fremon Craig’s adaptation of Judy Blume’s bold middle-grade novel Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. (the first big screen interpretation of the novel, and backed by filmmaker and producer James L. Brooks) is being released soon after the documentary Judy Blume Forever.
As someone admittedly unfamiliar with both the novel and Judy Blume’s works, one thing that stood out about that documentary is how many letters she received (and probably still does) across her life from preteens writing something along the lines of “you don’t know me, but somehow you do know me.” And while this appears to be a rather faithful adaptation, right down to the 1970s setting, it’s also translated and directed with the confidence of a filmmaker that also gets it, so hopefully, Kelly Fremon Craig will start receiving similar letters.
Set over the course of roughly one year, relative newcomer Abby Ryder Fortson (previously Cassie Lang in the Marvel Ant-Man series) is 11-year-old Margaret Simon, the daughter of interfaith parents Barbara (Rachel McAdams) and Herb (Benny Safdie), displeased about their decision to relocate from New York City to the New Jersey suburbs, thus moving away from her grandmother Sylvie (Kathy Bates). Herb has been promoted, so Barbara will no longer have to work and have more free time to cook, clean, and integrate herself into various school community programs.
Barbara is understandably unsure about this, although willing to try. Her character is more fleshed out in this adaptation, which is seemingly a wise choice considering the one consistent nitpick about Judy Blume’s books is that mothers often felt as if they didn’t have detailed inner lives or much to do. However, it’s also difficult to say that she is a deeply complex character this time around.
Still, most of the proceedings follow Margaret, who quickly befriends Elle Graham’s Nancy, a chipper young girl aware and happy that she is undergoing puberty. After prancing around the sprinklers on a warm summer day in their bathing suits, Margaret notices the differences between their bodies, developing some self-esteem frustration and writing to God that she wants her breasts to start growing.
With a somewhat diverse group of friends (ranging from personality to race, although it does feel as if there are missed opportunities to do some truly radical and progressive things with these characters and that the film is locked into a heteronormative box), they establish a secret club where they discuss pretty much exactly what one imagines young girls would talk about; boys, the stages of their puberty, whenever someone first gets their period, how to be a good kisser, scandalous rumors about a girl their age that is much taller and developed, and silly exercises under the impression it will increase the size of their bust. Naturally, they also come face-to-face with some unpleasant realities of their bodies growing up (there’s an incredibly well-done scene of a character getting her period for the first time, ashamed and frightened, seeking privacy and comfort behind teary eyes from her mother).
After learning that her mom’s parents disowned her for marrying a Jewish man, Margaret is also searching for her religious identity. Once her teacher (Echo Kellum) catches wind of her confusion regarding faith, he encourages her to research religions and do a paper on them. Margaret attends various churches, looking for meaning or anything that speaks to her meaningfully. One also wishes some of the scenes were extended so that there is a greater feeling of what Margaret thinks of the experiences.
Meanwhile, Margaret frequently finds herself trying to reach God through conversation, which is not easy for an actor to perform, let alone a mostly inexperienced child actor, but Abby Ryder Fortson delivers the dialogue believably with restraint, allowing her frustration and jealousy and confusion to build with each monologue. She and the entire ensemble portray everything about this awkward stage of life with cringe authenticity.
It’s also to be appreciated that, while Kelly Fremon Craig could have taken the easy, more hip route twisting the source material into something far more critical of organized religion, the narrative sticks to the concept that adults pushing beliefs onto children and others is the real issue. Through some forgivable contrivances, there’s a giant family reunion where Margaret’s relationship with everyone regarding faith is blown to smithereens, and once again, Abby Ryder Fortson is more than capable of conveying a relatable frustration that these people won’t allow her to research and choose for herself, even though they say that is their intention. Likewise, witnessing her grandmother’s joyous reaction when Margaret suggests tagging along to temple worship is heartwarming.
It is unquestionable that finally putting Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. up on the screen, especially at a point when books are once again unfairly under fire for a variety of reasons which will presumably include direct confrontations of puberty, regardless of how innocent and authentic they are portrayed on page or on-screen, is going to relate to a new generation of young girls while introducing them to Judy Blume. It is charming and sweet, with plenty of small laughs coming from the embarrassingly adorable situations these characters find themselves in, but also with no shortage of emotional weight stemming from family and religion that extends the experience to a demographic beyond preteen girls.
Those who worship Judy Blume will feel right at home here, but it’s the newcomers, the younger generations unfamiliar with Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. who will find genuinely helpful advice and lessons here that everyone should be grateful for that this adaptation exists.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com