Are you there, folks? It’s me, the critic.
If you know a tween girl—or you remember being one—go see Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret. Judy Blume’s beloved book about an eleven-year-old girl’s budding puberty comes to rich, layered life in this charming adaptation that’s funny, empathetic, and affecting.
Abby Ryder Fortson, best known as the spunky daughter of Marvel’s Ant-Man in Ant-Man and Ant-Man and the Wasp, takes the lead as Margaret, an easygoing, wide-eyed girl who returns home from summer camp to find her world upended. Her mom, Barbara (Rachel McAdams, Game Night), and dad, Herb (Benny Safdie, Licorice Pizza), have bought a home in New Jersey, leaving the bustle and clutter of a New York City apartment behind. For Margaret and her paternal grandma, Sylvia (Kathy Bates, Home), moving across the Hudson might as well be across the country.
The suburbs bring fast friends, such as Nancy (Elle Graham, She Said), a queen-bee wannabe who says things such as, “I live in the bigger house up the street,” and “You’re still flat.” Nancy has a secret club that requires everyone wear a bra, share when they get their period, and giggle over the same floppy-haired boy. Nancy also likes to gossip about Laura (Isol Young), the classmate unfortunate enough to need a bra a whole year earlier and who’s taller than everyone to boot.
Meanwhile, the women teachers bring all the girls to an assembly for a presentation about the wonders of menstruation. The girls gape and sink low in their seats.
Sound familiar? The beauty of Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret, both the book and the film, is the universality in these moments, even with the story set from 1970 to 1971. Writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig (Edge of Seventeen) has an eye and an ear for the awkwardness and subtleties of this age as Margaret, full of questions and curiosity, navigates her new feelings around puberty and identity.
Part of that involves exploring religion: Barbara’s Christian parents disowned her for marrying a Jewish man, and Margaret visits a synagogue, a Baptist service, and a confessional while talking to God through adorably frank prayers.
The 1970s setting emphasizes the timelessness, made more obvious by removing the internet and social media. The girls might have found easy answers online instead of squirreling away an anatomy textbook or an issue of Playboy, but the bullying and peer pressure would hit harder. Here, there’s an innocence to Margaret and her friends Janie (Amari Alexis Price) and Gretchen (Katherine Mallen Kupferer), even know-it-all Nancy. We can imagine their escapades and conversations taking place even now, from buying and trying feminine pads to quizzing each other about who’s kissed a boy for real, and for how long.
Blume, Craig, and James L. Brooks (Terms of Endearment) are among the producers, affectionately handling the material with care. In a departure from the book, where the adults existed on the margins, Craig gives Barbara and Sylvia coming-of-age journeys, too, rounding out the year in Margaret’s life. An artist who taught painting classes in the city, Barbara dives into volunteering for school committees, sticking out in her button-down shirts compared to other pin-neat moms. Sylvia, meanwhile, ventures beyond dramatic barbs and her comfort zone once her family isn’t a cab ride away.
The cast is solid across the board. Fortson is a relatable anchor, conveying Margaret’s shyness and growing spirit across her expressive face. Graham flounces amusingly as the is-she-really-mean girl. McAdams is warm and witty while also showing Barbara’s pain from her parents’ estrangement. She and Safdie have cute chemistry, along with Bates, the actors’ exasperation and confusion mimicking each other and cementing their portrayal as a family.
Production designer Steve Saklad (Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar) and costume designer Ann Roth (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom)deserve kudos for creating what Craig has called a “universal nostalgia,” like a comfortable moccasin. There isn’t a distracting shag carpet, set of bell bottoms, or strange color palette around.
And while there’s plenty of humor here, it’s never at Margaret’s expense. The camera doesn’t ogle her or the other tweens, even when Margaret stuffs her bra with tissues and vamps around her bedroom. There are moments where viewers’ eyes go right to the heaving chests of women in a church choir or the spangly outfits of the Radio City Music Hall Rockettes, but that’s because the girls fixate on when they’ll get what they fear they lack.
“Mine look like tiny witch’s hats,” one friend bemoans of her breasts.
Woven through it all are Margaret’s prayers, some aloud, some as voiceover, speaking to her highs and lows. “I’ve heard a lot of great things about you,” she tells God early on.
“Please don’t let New Jersey be too horrible….
“Please care of my mom. She’s a good person…
“Just let me be normal and regular like everybody else. Just please, please, please, please …”
You are, Margaret. You so are.