Review: Judy Blume’s Classic Novel Gets a Warm, Wonderful Adaptation in Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret

The amount of warmth and good sentiment I have for the new film adaptation of Judy Blume's iconic novel Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret cannot be overstated. Adapted by the author and director Kelly Fremon Craig (The Edge of Seventeen), this gem of a movie follows a 1970s pre-teen (that's Margaret, played by the effervescent Abby Ryder Fortson) who's eager to grow up at a time when changes in her life, both hormonal and familial, are coming fast and furious. The charm of Blume's novel is captured beautifully here as Margaret navigates the most tumultuous times in a tween girl's life, often defined the waiting: waiting to get your first period, waiting to grow breasts, waiting for a first kiss, waiting to be treated like a young adult rather than a child.

Margaret is the beloved only child of parents Herb (Benny Safdie) and Barbara (Rachel McAdams), New Yorkers who surprise their 11-year-old daughter on her return from summer camp that they're moving to suburban New Jersey before the new school year starts. Margaret is bereft, as is the grandmother she's extremely close to, the divine Kathy Bates as Sylvia, Herb's well-meaning Jewish widowed mother. But with encouragement from her parents and the help of a swift new friendship with classmate Nancy (Elle Graham), Margaret is soon settling in to her new life as a middle schooler. There are boys to crush on, school projects to research and all the trappings of an idyllic all-American life in the late 20th century.

With Are You There God?, Blume is responsible for the definitive tome on a particular coming-of-age experience for American teen girls, and in Fremon Craig's assured hands, that experience—every high and low, every triumph and failure, every awkward hilarity and heartbreaking crossroads—resonates with sincerity. The many threads of Margaret's busy life, from learning more about her family history and the truth about her maternal grandparents to understanding first hand what real friendship should look like, intertwine beautifully as we grow to love this messy tween and all her budding convictions. Her faith becomes another minefield for Margaret, as she starts to question her Jewish father and Christian mother's choice to raise her without religion, allowing her to make her own choice when she's grown. Enter her endearing conversations with God, questions and pleas and frustrations and gratitude all shared with someone, whoever, in the hopes of finally being heard and understood.

Like the book, Are You There God? succeeds because of its commitment to the truth, to saying what needs to be said and being honest about lived, universal experiences. From middle school sex ed to generational trauma and more, Blume, and now Fremon Craig, make every effort to speak to their audience with frankness and approachability. Nothing is scary or unspeakable about things like menstruation, our reproductive systems or other usually taboo topics. Through it all, the winning result is that anyone who's been in Margaret's shoes, is currently in them or knows someone who has been recognizes that truth on screen (or on the page), and it's nothing short of inspiring.

The film more than lucks out with McAdams and Bates as Margaret's closest female role models; it is nothing short of wonderful to see both on screen, both so beautifully dedicated to their parts. McAdams's screen presence has slowed in recent years (please, please go stream 2020's Eurovision Song Contest if you haven't yet), but her star has not dimmed in the slightest. As Margaret's progressive, self-aware 1970s feminist mother who doesn't quite fit in with the suburban PTA moms around her and who is dealing with complicated parental relationships of her own, McAdams is nearly heartbreaking in her sensitivity. It's matched only by the maternal ferocity and mama-bear energy Bates gives to Sylvia, a woman who's willing to go to any length (sometimes too far) for her beloved granddaughter.

Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret deserves an audience as broad and enthusiastic as any superhero story or video game adaptation of late. It's proof positive that representation on screen matters, that film (and storytelling in general) is at its best when it connects us, fumbling through this jumble of life as we all inevitably do. When I was Margaret's age, I clung to films like A League of Their Own, Now & Then and The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, all of which beautifully center female friendship and the cis-female experience. Blume's book, and now this exceptional new adaptation of it, belong squarely in that space, and generations of tween girls will be lucky to discover both.

The film is now playing in theaters.

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Lisa Trifone