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Review: Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.

April 26, 2023

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.

This is the deceptively simple question being asked by the 11-year-old protagonist of Judy Blume’s classic 1970 novel of the same name, a book for middle school readers that was groundbreaking for its frank discussions of taboo topics ranging from religion to menstruation.

In its over fifty years since publication, Blume’s book has been both widely celebrated and frequently challenged, but we have never gotten a proper film version of it. That all changes with writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig’s wonderful new adaptation, which feels like a small triumph.

Working with legendary producer James L. Brooks, Fremon Craig, who previously made the underrated 2016 coming-of-age film The Edge of Seventeen, is the perfect voice to bring this material to the screen. She finds just the right balance between the humour, heartache, and sensitive topics of Blume’s book, crafting it into a tender and genuinely delightful film that really does justice to the source material.

We first meet Margaret Simon (played in the film by Abby Ryder Fortson in a captivating breakout role) when she is being picked up from summer camp by her mother Barbara (Rachel McAdams) and doting grandma Sylvia (Kathy Bates). But Margaret’s world seems to come crashing down when her father Herbert (Benny Safdie) announces that the family is moving to New Jersey for his work, uprooting Margaret’s life in New York City.

Starting over at a new school in the suburbs, Margaret is befriended by popular girl Nancy Wheeler (Elle Graham), who brings her into her secret club where you can’t wear socks and need to wear a bra, and the girls all fervently wait for the rite of passage of getting their first periods. It’s this desperate desire to fit in and for her pre-pubescent body to mature faster than it is that leads Margaret to open her ongoing dialogue with God through prayer.

Because her mother is Christian and her father is Jewish, they decided to raise Margaret with no religious affiliation so that she could decide for herself as an adult. This lack of a faith identity leaves her feeling increasingly unmoored, as she questions where she belongs. Grandma Sylvia is more than happy to take her to temple, but she also has somewhat of a fraught relationship with the Christian side of her family. It’s a question that felt somewhat revolutionary to be tackled in a book for young readers in 1970, and is fascinating to see explored again now.

Blume’s book was always going to be a somewhat challenging one to bring to the screen, which is a big part of why it has never been properly adapted before. But Fremon Craig, who also wrote the screenplay, has crafted a sensitive adaptation that doesn’t shy away from the subject matter of Blume’s novel while also, crucially, never feeling sensationalized (I do think the film benefits from having a female filmmaker behind the camera). Another reason why the film works so well is because Fremon Craig has kept it in the same time period as the original book, allowing it to work as a period piece.

Set in 1970, the film is able to unfold in a simpler time before smart phones and social media, but the growing pains of trying to navigate new friendships and a changing body that Margaret goes through are universally relatable no matter the era. As Blume did in her book, Fremon Craig captures the horrors of a sex ed class, the embarrassment of buying pads, or the pain of wanting your crush to notice you, in a way that feels like the most important thing in the world. Because it sort of is at that age.

The perfectly pitched performances are also a big reason why the film works so well. Fortson does an excellent job of carrying the film on her shoulders, capturing the awkwardness of youth through her feisty, sympathetic portrayal of Margaret. McAdams is wonderful as the hurried but supportive mother, who seems to be recognizing parts of herself in Margaret through a knowing look or comment. It’s some of her finest work. Safdie is both funny and charming as the slightly goofy dad, and Bates steals scenes as the Jewish grandma who ensures that she is a part of Margaret’s life.

The result is one of the rare great middle school films. It’s a delightful movie that works wonderfully for its target demographic, while also doubling as a wistful, nostalgic experience for slightly older viewers as it builds to its bittersweet final moments. It’s all set to a soundtrack of songs from the era that really help set the mood, and turn Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. into a film that feels both timeless and like an instant classic. We may have had to wait over fifty years for this film adaptation, but it was worth it. This is the real deal.

Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. opens exclusively in theatres on April 28th. It’s being distributed in Canada by Cineplex Pictures.

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