Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret Review
It took author Judy Blume over 50 years to pursue a film adaptation for Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. The beloved literary classic was one of the first trailblazing stories of the Young Adult genre. While offers poured in over the years, Blume waited until the right time and the right filmmakers approached her.
Blume’s work has been adapted to screen before in films like Tiger Eyes (2012) and the made-for-television Fudge series (1995). Throughout her prolific writing career, Blume embraced topics of puberty, divorce, religion, and death. Her books explore these themes with thoughtful insights relevant to children’s experiences. Blume’s patience paid off. Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret is a touching masterpiece about the timeless struggles of growing up.
Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret is a quintessential coming-of-age story. Directed by Kelly Fremon Craig, the adaptation stayed true to the source material. 11-year-old Margaret Simon moves from New York City to New Jersey with her parents, Barbara and Herb. Margaret is raised without a religious affiliation because of her parents’ complicated relationships with their respective Christian and Jewish upbringings. Margaret struggles with her perception of faith, which is illustrated in her candid talks with God. She uses her talks with God to process her feelings as she deals with the onset of puberty and finding her place in her new school.
The filmmakers decision to set the movie in 1970 was a brilliant one. Blume’s book was groundbreaking for 1970, because it discussed the taboo topic of female puberty in print. Setting the film in 1970 was a callback to the original readers. These readers may have had experiences similar to Margaret and few tools to guide them through the pangs of adolescence. The early part of the 1970s was the beginning of tumultuous political and societal change. Mirroring that time with the confusing changes of adolescence gave the story heightened resonance.
The film would not have resonated the same way if it was set in modern times. With the technological advances and changes in societal approaches to discussing puberty, children today have more access to information than Margaret and her peers. Margaret and her friends sought answers to life’s confusing questions in library books, magazines, and their fellow peers. The flow of misinformation showed how kids were doing the best they could to make sense of the world with what they had available to them.
Oscar-winning costume designer, Ann Roth, pulled together classic ensembles reflective of the late 1960s and early 1970s. The fashion gave the film a flavor of nostalgia. Combined with production designer Steve Saklad’s impeccable vision, the rusty color palette of the 1970s provided a nostalgic backdrop.
The actors perform in ways that feel authentic to the source material, yet not overdone. Older actors are often cast to play younger characters, which skews perspective of what people look like at a given age. Writers often pen scripts where children are portrayed as perpetually precocious. The young actors in Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret played their characters realistically.
Abby Ryder Fortson was cast as the titular heroine. While Fortson was about 13 at the time of filming, she played 11-year-old Margaret with believable naivety, curiosity, and wonder. Fortson leaned into the embarrassing scenes with humor, making her a relatable proxy for the fans in the audience. She gave Margaret depth and humility.
Fortson also wasn’t afraid to lean into Margaret’s flaws. The moments when Margaret falls short of her own expectations are most compelling, like when she lashes out unfairly at a classmate. These scenes show how painful it is when your body and mind don’t seem to grow at the same rate. This realistic frustration is palpable in Fortson’s emotional scenes. Her performance perfectly illustrates the dichotomy of growing up: we simultaneously yearn for it and fear it.
Powerhouse Kathy Bates played Sylvia Simon, Margaret’s loving, loud and meddlesome grandmother. Bates has proven her range as an actress across genres. Her scenes with Fortson had effusive warmth and affection. Most of Bates’ scenes were removed from the cast and shown through phone conversations. Bates approached these conversations with the palpable impatience, excitement, and hint of loneliness Sylvia felt being separated from her family. The scene where Sylvia crosses the only two items off her to-do list captured her boredom and loneliness without a need for words. Bates can communicate volumes in a single sigh.
While Bates could have played the character as a one-dimensional doting grandmother, the writers gave her a storyline separate from Margaret. The scenes depicting Sylvia’s loneliness led her to find a community of her own.
Also notable was Rachel McAdams’ performance as Margaret’s mom, Barbara. Like Bates, McAdams was given thoughtful storylines that enabled her to show her range as an actress. Some films featuring adolescent protagonists feature clunky adult stereotypes that do little more to elevate the scene than add to the scenery. McAdams explores each story arc intentionally. Her enthusiasm at becoming a stay-at-home mom contrasts with the quiet scenes of loneliness and boredom.
McAdams tackles Barbara’s difficult relationship with her parents with a compelling range of emotions. She changes her tone, body language, and facial expressions to communicate flashes of longing and heartache rooted in her trauma. When she stands up for herself at the end of the movie it feels earned, because the audience can see her desire for authenticity at the root of her choice.
Barbara’s storyline mirrors Sylvia’s and Margaret’s because they are women who try to figure out how to integrate changes into their perception of themselves. These women try to rectify their sense of self within a larger community. Since who we are is what we do, the film explores these three women trying different activities with curiosity and fear of the unknown. All three of their story arcs converge at the climax of the film, where their desire to belong to a community comes to the forefront.
Blume, who wrote the original novel and served as the movie’s producer, found another way to be involved in the production. Fans of Blume are treated to a quick glimpse of the author, as a neighbor briskly walking through town.
Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret was an adaptation of a timeless classic that was worth the 53-year wait. The film is at the pinnacle of storytelling. The themes still resonate 50 years later. Fans who kept the faith will be elated to see Margaret’s story again, in groovy technicolor.