Thursday, February 29, 2024

FYC: “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” For Best Adapted Screenplay

‘Tis the (award) season to catch up on new releases, discover hidden gems, and revisit newfound personal favorites. One of said favorites this year, which has now become an instant classic in my roster of comfort films, is “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.” Writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig has lovingly adapted Judy Blume’s formative bestselling YA novel of the same name. Blume gave voice to the many complicated feelings that can often define girlhood, from confusion and awkwardness to angst and embarrassment. Craig’s delightful film version adds to the chorus. The story of 11-year-old heroine Margaret Simon (a tremendous Abby Ryder Fortson) follows her character on a big family move from the bustling streets of New York to a suburban neighborhood in New Jersey. The change of scenery brings about everything from identity crises and first crushes to peer pressure and periods.

The heart of this film starts with the words on the page. Through a remarkable balance of tone, Kelly Fremon Craig embraces the honesty and complexity of a young girl coming of age. In being faithful to Blume’s novel and expanding upon the storylines, the screenplay not only captures what made the novel so universal and empathetic. The adaptation is also a heartfelt expression of Craig’s relationship to the text and its reverberating impact. Telling a 1970s-set story that feels simultaneously of its time and timeless, she grasps the feeling of being seen and heard by a piece of material. The radical spirit of Blume’s work can be felt alongside the individual features of Craig’s exceptional writing: from funny and sharp-witted to vulnerable and authentic.

Since the film’s theatrical release in the spring of 2023, it’s been heartening to see “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.” resurface in the form of awards recognition. From critics’ groups nominating Rachel McAdams for her stirring performance as Margaret’s mom, Barbara, to well-deserved Critics Choice Award nominations for Fortson in Best Young Actor/Actress and Craig in Best Adapted Screenplay. The sensitivity and clarity of Craig’s voice is a match made in heaven for the novel’s truthful approach to heavy subject matter. Her writing embraces the intricacies that make girlhood and womanhood the experience that it is. There are details in this film relative to adolescence that are depicted so matter-of-factly on screen, refreshingly so. For instance, moments of characters getting their periods for the first time are given incredible nuance.

Craig’s adaptation of “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.” maintains the novel’s sweet spot between universality and specificity while also bringing the story to modern audiences with her uniquely layered perspective. One of the most rewarding layers is having fully realized supporting characters as part of the journey. Moving from New York to New Jersey is not only hard on Margaret, but her mom Barbara (McAdams) as well, who had left behind a fulfilling career as an art teacher. As Barbara adjusts to her life in the suburbs and feels a pressured responsibility to get involved with the new school’s PTA committee, she finds herself having less time for artistic inspiration to strike. This is just one of many threads to the character, who we come to discover has made difficult sacrifices to protect her family and shield Margaret from past experiences. Craig finds such a kinship with this multidimensional role and highlights the validity of her emotions that the film becomes just as much about Barbara’s journey. Two scenes in particular showcase the parallel coming-of-age storylines, as well as the layered character work in Craig’s writing.

“I Got It”

Why does “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.” feel like a warm hug? This moment is the perfect example. In the clip “I Got It” featuring Abby Ryder Fortson and Rachel McAdams, Margaret finally gets what she had been practicing for two months for her period. It’s a euphoric moment that hits you with a tidal wave of emotion, especially knowing in the lead-up how anxious Margaret was to experience this part of girlhood. The scene sums up just how closely knitted the screenplay is to Margaret’s character development; this is the end of one journey and the beginning of another for her. Margaret’s excitement of “I know how to do it” radiates a newfound sense of independence. Plus, the scene speaks to Craig’s brilliant decision to give Barbara a flourishing character arc. The parallel mother-daughter journey of coming into your own can be felt deeply. Barbara’s tears of joy come with the subtle indication that she, too, is experiencing a shift in the dynamic with her daughter. The simplicity of Barbara’s line, “You don’t need me,” makes a powerful impact, as does the nuance of McAdams’s delivery. It simultaneously evokes so many emotions and speaks to “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.’s” multigenerational reach.

“Margaret Went to Temple”

One of the most profound aspects of this film is the topic of religion being explored from a place of ambiguity. Margaret is no religion. Her mom, Barbara (McAdams), and dad, Herb (Benny Safdie), have raised her with the autonomy that she can choose for herself when she becomes an adult. This decision stems from an emotional backstory; Barbara’s Christian parents distanced Barbara from their lives after refusing to accept that she married a Jewish man. This subject matter is approached with sensitivity in the most emotionally charged scene of the film: the family reunion. In the clip “Margaret Went to Temple,” featuring Fortson, McAdams, Safdie, Kathy Bates (Herb’s mom), Mia Dillon (Barbara’s mom), and Gary Houston (Barbara’s dad), the tension is palpable. It’s a testament to Craig’s writing and keen exploration of character that the scene is framed from multiple perspectives, each one fully realized.

The boldness of Herb’s mother Sylvia (Bates) being there uninvited feels like an extension of the instinctive protectiveness she has towards her son. The vulnerability of Barbara, whose years of hurt have bubbled up to the surface and who feels a heavy responsibility for inviting her parents over in the first place (“I did this, I’m so sorry”), is profoundly moving. Then there’s young Margaret, a ball of confusion and frustration until the volcano erupts and she voices her emotions (“I don’t want a religion, I don’t care!”). The layered construction of this scene is a gut punch to the soul. Every bit of dialogue feels real and intimate, like being a fly on the wall of a family’s home. The arrival of this scene and its emotional aftermath is a stunning reminder that as sweet and wholesome as “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.” often is, it’s also refreshingly honest and fiercely dedicated to taking its main character (and her world) seriously.

Do you think “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.” should be in contention for an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay? What do you think of the film? Do you believe it’s worthy of other Oscar nominations? Please check out my interview with Kelly Fremon Craig here, our latest¬†Oscar Predictions here and let us know your thoughts in the comments section below or on our Twitter¬†account.

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Nadia Dalimonte
Nadia Dalimonte
Editor In Chief for Earth to Films. Film Independent, IFS Critics, NA Film Critic & Cherry Pick member.

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