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Kelly Fremon Craig’s Adaptation Pays Due Diligence To Judy Blume’s Cherished Novel

Apr 20, 2023

When it comes to young adult literature, there are few books as universally beloved and influential for preteen girls as “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret,” Judy Blume’s seminal 1970 novel. Tackling everything from boys to periods to religion, “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” was a groundbreaking exploration of so-called taboo topics that plague all young girls. In fact, it’s so ubiquitous with female adolescence that it’s surprising no one’s adapted Blume’s book sooner. While this adaptation may not quite translate the singular wit and punch of Blume’s novel, Kelly Fremon Craig’s film is a loyal, dutiful take on the book that brings the warmth and spirit of Margaret’s tumultuous year to a new generation.
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Starring Abby Ryder Fortson (“Ant-Man“), “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” follows 11-year-old Margaret Simon, a theater-loving New York city child whose life gets upended when her parents Barbara (Rachel McAdams) and Herb (Benny Safdie) announce their family will move to the suburbs of New Jersey and leave Margaret’s beloved grandmother Sylvia (Kathy Bates) behind. Margaret quickly falls in with a 6th grade clique led by the uber-wealthy Nancy (Elle Graham), whose preoccupation with boys, breasts, and periods quickly takes over Margaret’s world as well.
At its core, what made “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” so crucial in the young lives of countless American girls is its head-on attitude towards discussing and reconciling with topics considered unsavory or grown up, and doing so in a way that doesn’t condescend to its young readers. The film maintains this crucial thematic center: both in terms of the plotlines regarding religion/family and the ones discussing puberty and changing young bodies.
In terms of juggling its themes, “Margaret” splits the storylines fairly evenly down the middle. And with the casting of McAdams and Margaret’s mom and Cathy Bates as her grandmother, the film ups the amount of screen time devoted to Margaret’s home life, not just her social circle. These additional scenes most benefit Bates’ Sylvia, who chews scenery where appropriate and secures her status as the film’s scene-stealer.
Benny Safide and Rachel McAdams make for a believable pair as Margaret’s mixed-religion parents (Herb is Jewish while Barbara is a devout Christian). However, McAdams admittedly feels underutilized with the dialogue Barbara has in relation to the complexity of the themes at hand. On the whole, Margaret’s conflict about deciding which religion she wants to follow oftentimes feels like a back-burner story in comparison to her relationship with her growing body, but it’s understandable that a film with an eleven year old protagonist/target audience might not want to make religious trauma a central theme.
Still, Craig’s film treats the topic with the appropriate depth and gravity it deserves, while also still remaining accessible to its aforementioned young audience. If anything, the issue with this aspect of Margaret’s story is how much like an afterthought it feels in comparison to Margaret’s school world, where she spends most of her time and emotional energy. Her parents themselves also feel a little underbaked—Safdie and McAdams are consistently charismatic and charming, but they don’t feel as appropriately utilized as they could’ve been.
That’s in stark contrast to the film’s younger ensemble who not only have ample material to work with, but also deliver a gaggle of impressive performances. At the center of it all, of course, is Abby Ryder Fortson, who brings a down-to-earth self-doubt and insecurity that makes Margaret so relatable for young readers. Fortson has all of Margaret’s requisite intelligence, but her performance also carries a vulnerability that makes the story’s harsher emotional moments all the more potent. It’s a star-making performance for a remarkable young talent.
Other young scene-stealers include Graham as Margaret’s snooty, well-off but also insecure Nancy Wheeler (yes, the “Stranger Things” character’s namesake). Nancy is the type of middle school villain who’s easy to hate, but Graham brings a similar youthful vulnerability to Fortson’s performance to make Nancy’s character more sympathetic and difficult to pin down. Isol Young as Laura Danker, a fellow sixth grader and outcast from their class due to her rapidly developing body, is also a memorable (if, again, underutilized) young performer.
There are times when Craig’s direction in “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” feels frustratingly by-the-book; with source material and a cast this good, one imagines it’d be difficult to make a truly bad version of this film, but there aren’t very many interesting directorial decisions and creative risks. Craig instead provides speckles of personality in the film’s 70s-inspired production design and music supervision. But all of the film’s standout moments come by way of Blume’s original story, not anything specific to the movie itself. 
Still, as an adaption for one of the most crucial books in the American young adult canon, “Are You There? God It’s, Margaret” does an admirable job of honoring a beloved touchstone in the lives of so many young women. Frank yet warm, charming yet brutally honest, Craig’s film pays its due diligence to Blume and her cherished novel. [B+]

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