THE STORY – Raised by a Christian mother and a Jewish father, an adolescent girl starts to ask questions about religion and faith.
THE CAST – Abby Ryder Fortson, Rachel McAdams, Benny Safdie & Kathy Bates
THE TEAM – Kelly Fremon Craig (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 106 Minutes
Seven years ago, writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig burst onto the scene in a big way with the instant coming-of-age classic “The Edge of Seventeen,” receiving awards galore for her bitterly funny and brutally honest debut (including the New York Film Critics Circle’s Best First Film Award and a nomination for Outstanding Directing – First-Time Feature Film at the 2017 DGA Awards) that captured the complicated experience of 21st Century adolescence better than almost any other teen movie in recent memory at that point. Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird” – which tackled similar themes with a similarly thorny female protagonist – would premiere a year later and steal much of Craig’s thunder in this space. Still, real ones remember her contribution to this genre, especially Gen Z girls who were able to grow up with “The Edge of Seventeen’s” Nadine Franklin (brought to life in deeply felt fashion by the ever-spectacular Hailee Steinfeld) as one of the most realistic depictions of a female teenager ever seen in a film.
And yet, despite its ability to endure – and all the hype conjured up for Craig when “The Edge of Seventeen” first opened – her career didn’t take off like those of her contemporaries (such as the aforementioned Gerwig), which came as a disappointment to many who felt so seen by her witty and often unexpectedly wrenching writing, and caused some to worry that she’d suffered the fate of many female filmmakers before her and had been denied opportunities and access to tell the stories she wanted to tell that are offered without thought to uh, certain other individuals in the industry. But that’s what made the announcement that she’d be making a movie out of Judy Blume’s “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.” in early 2020 all the more exciting. Not only was Craig finally making her comeback, but she’d do so by adapting one of the most acclaimed (and essential) novels of all-time – one that had a place in the personal history of millions of women around the world. Sure, that meant she’d have some pretty high expectations to meet too, but us early “Craig-heads” knew she was up for the task. And after seeing her charming, comical, and comfortingly compassionate take on this celebrated source material, it feels good to have never doubted her for a second.
The story of “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.” is simple, but that’s what makes it special – and that’s what’s made it such a staple of children’s literature for over 50 years. Nothing that happens to Margaret is groundbreaking or revolutionary, but the fact that what happens to Margaret is discussed and explored so thoroughly and frankly (first by Blume, and now by Craig, who certainly adds her own style to the storytelling despite it being set in the same time period of the early 70s) is what makes this coming-of-age chronicle still so crucial, as discussion of sexual development in women and especially young girls continue to be censored to this day, despite the passage of five decades that should have brought about historic progress. And yet, here we are, where a movie that simply respects its pre-teen audience members and meets them on their level to help them sort through the mess of middle school – socially and physically – is still seen as some kind of transgressive liberal brainwashing technique as if telling an 11-year-old already experiencing her first period what it is is some sort of unforgivable and unspeakable crime that will taint their purity forever (news flash people, whether or not you teach your daughter what a period is or not, it’s still going to arrive anyway, so she can either be prepared for it or be perpetually confused every month and riddled with debilitating anxiety – your call).
It all starts when 11-year-old Margaret Simon (“Ant-Man’s” Abby Ryder Fortson, in her first lead role) is told by her parents, Barbara (the always ravishing Rachel McAdams) and Herb (Benny Safdie, best known for writing and directing “Good Time” and “Uncut Gems” with his brother Josh) that they’ll be moving from New York to New Jersey for her next school year, which also happens to be the start of middle school. And while many a child has already also been in a situation like this, the relatability (especially for young girls) doesn’t stop there, as, in New Jersey, Margaret proceeds to navigate the treacherous waters of female friendship for the first time, reckon with her changing body (or not-changing body, as she struggles with fears that she’ll be the last girl in class to grow breasts or get her period), explore her burgeoning attraction to boys, and, on top of all this, experiment with different religions as the child of a Christian (her mother) and a Jew (her father) who have allowed her to decide which religion she wishes to follow – or none at all – instead of forcing one on her (primarily because of how Barbara became estranged from her own parents by marrying Herb).
As one can see just by that short synopsis, “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.” attempts to cover a lot of ground in a relatively speedy 106 minutes. However, like all the best coming-of-age movies, these topics are never discussed one by one but instead occur simultaneously, as they do in life. Girls don’t get to decide to deal with their period on Monday and save their religious crises for Tuesday; teenagers are always at the whim of a thousand struggles all at once on a daily basis, and, as was the case in the book, this movie captures that chaos to a painstakingly specific degree, feeling so authentic that it almost becomes too hard to watch at points. Still, we stick it out because it’s so comforting to see your own insecurities and stories in someone else at the same time and know that your feelings and experiences are not unique and you’re not alone. That sense of universality and inclusion makes “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.” quite a sweet and sincere story – especially thanks to the empathy that’s overflowing in Craig’s openhearted script – but it stops short of ever becoming too saccharine thanks to both its sharp-witted comedy (what better way to grapple with the awkwardness of early adolescence than by snickering at our shared misfortunes?) and its commitment to stark honesty above all else, never pulling its punches when it comes to its most meaningful revelations about personal and physical growth.
And it also helps that “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.” has one hell of a cast, starting with the title character herself, who is inhabited incredibly by Abby Ryder Fortson, who demonstrates an emotional intuition far beyond her years as she taps into Margaret’s psyche and portrays all her complex concerns and internal conflicts concurrently in each and every scene, while also still remembering to live in the moment and land all her endearingly uncomfortable comedic bits too. Rachel McAdams, typically the best part of any project she’s ever been a part of, is once again MVP, though, not only for the raw and radiant realization of Barbara’s relationship with Margaret but also for her affecting candor in her own character arc, which runs alongside Margaret’s as an example of the neverending evolution of a woman’s sense of self when Barbara struggles to balance the duties of being a housewife with her own personal pursuits, straining to maintain the interests that make her who she is while also meeting society’s expectations of a wife and mother. Broadening “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.’s” messaging to include Barbara is one of the best things about this adaptation (along with its even more intricate examination of all the similarities and differences of multiple religions and what they offer to their followers – and how they all can be used to divide instead of unite), and McAdams makes it worthwhile. And, aside from these two, another special shoutout is owed to American icon Kathy Bates, who makes the most of every moment she’s given as Margaret’s gregarious Jewish grandma Sylvia.
It’s tough to be a woman today (and hell, it always has been). On top of everything we endure on our own and inside, there are always – always – social and political forces working against us at every second to rob us of our rights to control and understand our own bodies. It begins from the moment we’re born. And that’s what makes a movie like “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.” so important. It doesn’t set out to change the world. It doesn’t draw attention to itself. But nevertheless, this story has become subversive and radical simply by treating its female protagonists – and its female viewers/readers – like multidimensional people with valid thoughts and feelings worth exploring and discussing instead of hiding away in shame. The book has always been there for girls as a tool of guidance through the tricky tightrope act of teendom. Still, there’s a different level of investment and relatability that comes from seeing these events unfold for yourself on the silver screen, especially if you’re a viewer of the same age as these characters, sorting through these same struggles; you’re there with them the whole time, and they remain with you even after the credits roll. By the end, it’s become a new essential text for girls in search of the answers to the anxieties of adolescence and the second coming-of-age classic Kelly Fremon Craig has made in a row – and my god, I’m just so happy it exists.