By Charles Kirkland Jr.
One of Judy Blume’s most recognized young adult fiction books for little girls comes to the big screen as Abby Ryder Fortson asks, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.
At the end of the Summer of 1970, as she returns home from summer camp, eleven-year-old Margaret Simon (Abby Ryder Fortson) discovers that her world has changed. Her father has received a promotion at his job. Thanks to this recent success, her parents have decided to move from their New York City apartment to a house in the New Jersey suburbs. Despondent over the move, Margaret offers up a prayer to a God that she doesn’t know to stop the impending move that will take her away from all her friends and her grandmother. Unfortunately, her prayers go unanswered. On the day of her move, Margaret meets Nancy Wheeler (Elle Graham), a precocious girl from up the street. Nancy lets Margaret join Janie (Amari Alexis Price) and Gretchen (Katherine Mallen Kupferer) in her “club”, a group of girls who meet and just talk about boys and becoming women. One day Margaret’s teacher gives her a project that will have a profound effect on her, her family, and her friends.
Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret is a coming-of-age tale written and directed by Kelly Fremon Craig based upon the best-selling book by Judy Blume. The movie stars Fortson, Graham, Price, and Kupferer with Rachel McAdams, Echo Kellum, and Kathy Bates. Academy award-winning writer and director James L. Brooks serves as a producer on this film. This is the first collaboration between Kelly Fremon Craig and Brooks since they worked together on another coming-of-age drama, The Edge of Seventeen. An interesting addition to the film is the music from another Academy Award winner, Hans Zimmer.
Released in 1970, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret is a beloved classic book. It was named Outstanding Book of the Year by the New York Times. Since its release, it has not gone out of print. It has been on the best 100 books of all time since 2012. One would be hard-pressed to find a woman over the age of forty who has not read it and even most girls Gen X and younger have been exposed to it. Yet because of its explicit themes of female menstruation and puberty, it has also been banned in many locations. Nonetheless, the book and its author have a massive following.
This film perfectly captures the spirit of the book. From bra searches and foot blisters to gossipy boy talks and spinning the bottle, everything about the pre-adolescent female experience is here in this film. The pre-teen angst and drama are real and well-documented. Although the film strays slightly here and there from the book, the important subject matter is included. As seen in the title, one of the central themes of the book is the search for God that is conducted by Margaret, the daughter of a Christian mother and a Jewish father who have both banned religious talk and even holidays in the home.
Abby Ryder Fortson, who many will remember as Cassie in the first Ant-Man movie, is delightful in this film. She cries. She pouts. She puzzles through the film in a way that is completely genuine and believable. Director Craig seems to have no problem with sticking the camera directly in her face and allowing her to emote. Fortson is perfectly cast.
Speaking of perfectly cast, the consummate professional Kathy Bates playing Sylvia Simon, Margaret’s paternal grandmother is outstanding. She is the epitome of a proud grandmother who dotes on and adores her only granddaughter and then becomes fiercely protective of her when necessary. Bates steals each and every scene in which she appears and that is a wonderful thing.
One scene that is not in the book but included in the film and is especially memorable to watch is when Janie, the only black girl in the movie, is preparing for a formal birthday party for a classmate. It is impressive to see Janie lying down across the kitchen counter and leaning into the sink to get her hair washed. This is followed by showing that good old hot comb going through her hair to straighten it. This is an insider, black girl magic moment to which not a lot of people are knowledgeable. (Somebody has done their homework!) It is a very special and inclusive moment that is very much appreciated.
The only criticism lies in the failure to resolve the central theme of the movie. Since the title of the film and much of the story in the film is about a search for God, shouldn’t there be a resolution to that theme in order to bring completion to the movie? In this film, the conclusion to the search is never stated one way or the other. In the creative process of the movie, it would have been so much better served if there were some explicit recognition of Margaret’s spiritual journey, whether she found God or not or whether she is continuing the search.
Rated PG-13 for thematic material involving sexual education and some suggestive material, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret is a wistful and genuine glimpse into the twisted and sometimes silly world of female adolescence. Because this is a film that focuses on the lives of growing girls, it could be easily overlooked by those outside of that demographic. But if there are guys that want a look into the world of young girls, particularly fathers with girls around this age, it is hilariously insightful.