Reading Judy Blume is a rite of passage practically on the level of the momentous events in the writer’s middle-grade and young-adult novels, like buying your first bra or getting your period. You’re crossing the Rubicon and joining generations who came before you. (I say this as someone who was not allowed to read Blume’s books as a child and is probably still mentally in prepubescent purgatory.) However, for how important her work figures in the lives of young readers and the adults they grow into — and for the 90 million copies sold — none of her books has been turned into a major motion picture, until Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, which was published more than 50 years ago. In adapting the coming-of-age classic, writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig (The Edge of Seventeen) chose to keep the novel’s original 1970 setting, but it still feels strikingly relevant today. This movie’s Margaret may not have an ever-present iPhone or a bed covered with Squishmallows like contemporary kids, but her experiences ring true decades later.
After a gleeful summer at Camp Minnewaska in Vermont, Margaret Simon (Abby Ryder Fortson) returns home to New York City. Yet her wonderfully brash, beloved bubbe, Sylvia (Kathy Bates, of course), breaks the bad news to her: her parents, Barbara (Rachel McAdams) and Herb (Benny Safdie), are moving the family to New Jersey. At 11-almost-12-years old, Margaret is already at a tough age, and starting a new school and finding new friends is the literal worst. However, her neighbor, reigning queen bee Nancy (Elle Graham), chooses Margaret for her exclusive group of four friends, who are obsessed with boys, bras, and their periods.
Yet — as its title implies — Are You There God? isn’t just a standard coming-of-age film about friendship and puberty. Margaret has all the requisite struggles of a tween girl, which inform much of the film’s giggly humor, but she has the added complexity of her Jewish dad and formerly Christian mom in 1970. At the encouragement of her teacher (Echo Kellum), she chooses to investigate all her options for religion, attending temple, mass, and a Black church service, all while having regular conversations with a god she’s not sure exists (or can hear her). This level of thoughtfulness and self-reflection would be ambitious even for a wide-release movie aimed at adults, but seeing it in one meant for young viewers is remarkable. Fremon Craig’s script and, of course, Blume’s novel are sensitive to Margaret’s every feeling and thought, validating who she is at a time when kids desperately worry if they’re normal.
Fremon Craig offers an air of nostalgia, from the oldies-laden soundtrack to the ‘70s-era-appropriate costumes and decor. Yet these trappings aren’t there to wink and give the audience that sense of recognition that some movies rely on to gain your affection. Instead, the filmmaker offers that feeling in the familiar experience of Margaret; whether you got your period in the age of Teenage Softies sanitary napkins or sustainable, organic cotton tampons, there’s identification in the shared experience of changing bodies and growing up.
Beyond its tender treatment of Margaret, Fremon Craig’s screenplay expands the worlds of the other women in her family, letting us see more of the lives of her mother and grandmother. It’s a nice touch to occasionally shift the film’s point of view to theirs, recognizing that the audience for Are You There God? won’t be limited to tween girls. It’ll be their mothers, as well as the generations of people who grew up with the book as a touchstone. They’ll see that it isn’t only Margaret who is struggling; the family’s move to the suburbs means that McAdams’ Barbara no longer has a career that drives her. Meanwhile, Bates’ Sylvia is equally unmoored after her granddaughter moved across the river, and she finds it hard to fill her days. Are You There God? emphasizes that self-discovery doesn’t end when you’re an adult; you can still find yourself and your purpose years after you’re supposed to have it all figured out.
Are You There God? is a gem of a film, sweet, funny, and always generous to its characters, even in their worst moments. It feels such big emotions, echoing the giddy highs and crushing lows of being a tween. Those feelings will still move adults too, even if they’re decades past the thrill of a crush and the embarrassment of being the first — or the last — person to hit puberty. Fremon Craig and her wonderful cast have made a movie that is honest, hilarious, and full of heart, one that creates empathy for Margaret and everyone else on screen, as well as for the viewers themselves.
“Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” is in theaters tonight.