One of the strengths that writer/director Kelly Fremon Craig’s adaptation of author Judy Blume’s beloved 1970’s novel Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret marvelously exhibits a balance between its two main themes. Stories entrenched in the minds and hearts are challenging to crack when striving to translate them into a different form of media. This is why Blume has rejected many pitches for over 40 years. Thankfully, Craig's guidance does the story justice. The film is a revelatory coming-of-age tale that takes on the sometimes thorny premise of religious identity with care and brevity.
Margaret Simon’s (Abby Ryder Fortson) world is rocked when she returns home from camp, and her mom Barbara (Rachel McAdams), and father, Herb (Benny Safdie), let her know the family is moving from bustling New York to the suburbs of New Jersey. That alone is a lot for a 12-year-old young girl to deal with. What do you mean I have to start over again? On top of this, Margaret has to leave her lively grandmother Sylvia Simon (Kathy Bates) behind.
Okay, how do you overcome the dread of starting over again? Margaret meets a new friend in Nancy Wheeler (Elle Graham), who asks her to join a secret club. One of the sticking points of this club is that nobody can wear socks (which reveals itself in a hilarious and rather painful way). But also, it’s a pathway for Margaret, Nancy, and their friends Janie (Amari Alexis Price) and Gretchen (Katherine Kupferer) to share crushes and figure out the puzzles of puberty together. The film feels straight from a 1970s photobook, and the cinematography of Tim Ives and Steve Sakland’s design exquisitely makes this period piece seem real.
It’s enjoyable to see Margaret go through these benchmarks, but to make sense of it all – she talks to God. That running voiceover adds an emotional layer to a young girl trying to make sense of the many changes coming at her. Not only does she have to make sense of the changes in her body and the prospect it’s happening slower for her, but there’s also the question of the religious worlds she’s caught in between. An assignment from her sixth-grade teacher sends Margaret on an exploratory journey where she begins to reckon with the concept of self-identity. With her father being Jewish and her mother coming from a Christian background, there are many things to parse – confusing, sometimes messy, and heartbreaking.
Here is where Craig bridges the outstanding performances of Fortson and McAdams. While the story rightfully centers around Margaret, Barbara has something equally interesting to deal with in her character. She gave up being an art teacher, an aspect of her life that she loved, for the move. Barbara also has to deal with the ire of her parents, whose staunch entrenchment in their faith stopped speaking to her because of whom she married. The scenes where McAdams is alone to ruminate on this interweave into the main story effortlessly. All the characters have their own flavors put forth by their acting counterparts to give It’s Me, Margaret, the fullness it deserves.
There are good times to be had, school dances to prepare for, and finding your way through all the muck. Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret manages to combine all the pieces to make this timeless story have two solid mediums for generations to experience.