Go ahead and mark down as a member of the “Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret” stan club. I’ve always been a sucker for a well made coming of age film, which is much easier said than done. Often times the genre walks the line between raunchy sex comedy or strong YA undertones that rarely transcend the years of who the film is based on. It shouldn’t be any surprise that the latest Blume adaption goes deeper, as the writer herself has built a long career of tackling complex matters of growing up with abandon and authenticity. Blume is unafraid to discuss the realities of our young experiences without any kind of subtly and “Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret” keeps all of this intact to deliver a powerful, heartfelt, humorous, uncompromising story of childhood to womanhood.
Written and directed by Kelly Fremon Craig (“The Edge of 17,” “Bumblebee“) and based on the Judy Blume novel of the same name, “Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret” tells the story of 11 year old Margaret living in New York in 1970. After returning home from a Summer sleepway camp, she is blindsided by her parent’s decision to suddenly move to the suburbs of New Jersey. This takes Margaret further away from not just her friends, but her Grandmother with whom she has a very deep and special relationship. Having to start her life over in a new city at a new school and needing to make new friends all while having to begin dealing with her changing body, Margaret begins to ask questions about puberty milestones including getting her period and wearing a bra. Not really having a religion of her own (her mom is Christian and her father is Jewish, so they decided to raise her on no religion and let her decide for herself) she begins to “talk” to god in hopes that she can find answers for her life.
I know there are least some preconceived notions that a film about a girl praying to God to get her period so she can be normal is ONLY for girls, but I can tell you that this is categorically a bad take and comes from the very dated mindset that made Blume such a controversial figure in the first place. “Are You There God” is simply brilliant storytelling that works for anyone willing to let it take you over regardless of your gender identity. Craig demonstrates a clear, deeply personal connection the story, and the care and focus of her direction and script make this gem accessible to everyone. Craig operates with the same abandon and uncompromising narrative of the source material, and the young girls desires to have their first kiss or get their periods or trying to increase their busts never feel exploitative or pandering. It all feels authentic and relatable even if those things don’t necessarily apply to you. “Are You There God” has a lot on its mind beyond the surface level of its “shouldn’t be but somehow still is some 40 year after the book was written controversies” about what it means to be a woman.
There is so much heart and purpose behind the camera, and that very exuberance shines through the performances as well. Craig cares as much about her young stars as she does the adults, and perfectly juxtaposes the struggles of being adult against the struggles of growing up. Neither are easy, and both come with their own baggage and self discovery. This wholistic approach to the material is a huge reason as to why “Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret” is so effective and helps get the most out of its performers. Abby Ryder Fortson is a fantastic lead as Margaret, able to capture all the complexities of being a girl waiting to be a woman with authenticity and magnetic charm. Her uncanny ability to transition from impeccable comedic timing to emotional drama on a dime shows all the promise of a young star on the cusp of greatness. It is impossible not to fall in love with Fortson’s Margaret, and she is the genuine article of young up and coming child actors.
Rachel McAdams as Margaret’s mother Barbara is a stark reminder that McAdams is great when she wants to be. She is just brilliant here, with “Are You There God” bringing out the best of her talents and reminding us all that she too is an incredible performer, capable of a wide range of talent that is on full display. I miss this McAdams, and I hope she chooses more projects like “Are You There God” that highlight her true potential. She is the perfect balance to Fortson, and their relationship in both the good and bad times help drive the film’s primary theme: no one has it all together, and growing up has no real time table. Kathy Bates as Margaret’s grandmother Sylvia injects a healthy dose of humor into the story and puts all of her veteran skills on full display even with her limited screen time. There really is not a bad performance in “Are You There God” and it once again shows what you can get out of performers when they aren’t forced to elevate a shoddy script. When a script is this sharp and poignant and well done, the performances naturally take flight and aren’t hindered by heavy lifting. Everything breaths. Every performance feels authentic and the film is able to stand tall among its peers to be the best version of itself.
Craig’s faithful adaption of the novel paired with her additions of fleshing out the adult characters makes “Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret” a refreshing, funny, heartfelt film that feels like the first time a film like this has been made. It’s not, but it is so fearless and faithful you’d think no one had ever made a coming of age story before. Yes, “Are You There God” is that good, a film so powerful and enjoyable it shoulders the entire genre as an almost course correction and reminds us that Hollywood does know how to make these kinds of films, they just haven’t in a very long time. There is a prevailing earnestness throughout every aspect of this story, from its deeply resonate direction, faithful source material adaption and stellar performances. I understand why it took so long to adapt the controversial novel, but “Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret” turns out to be worth the wait in gold. This is as good as movies get, and it just may make the case for being one of the best films of the year.
I implore you to put your gender based assumptions aside and let “Are You There God” work its magic. Though the film is an unfettered celebration of girlhood and womanhood that centers itself around the changing bodies of women, to say that this is just a “girl” movie is cheating yourself out of a near perfect coming of age masterpiece. At its core, “Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret?” is about self discovery, and thematic focuses on the idea that no matter where you are in life, there is always something to be learned about yourself.
That’s a story I think we can all get behind, and “Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret” tells it better than most films have in a very long time. This a marvelous piece of cinema, and I can’t recommend it enough.
And to the dudes still on the fence, remember: Just because you don’t need to do exercises to get a bra, we too must increase our bust!
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Stars
“Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret” is now playing in theaters. You can watch the trailer below.