Movie Curiosities: Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret.
In a weird sort of way, I felt strangely compelled to review this movie precisely because I might just be the least-qualified person to give it a shot.
I’m a cis-hetero guy, and I wasn’t raised in an especially religious household, but I did grow up in a conservative suburb where “Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret” most definitely would’ve been censored. I have no prior experience with this book, or indeed much of any work from Judy Blume. (Remember, I grew up in Portland, where the late Beverly Cleary is a revered hometown hero. So many local schools and statues and library wings are dedicated to Cleary that Judy Blume may as well not exist out here.) For that matter, I missed out on The Edge of Seventeen and I don’t know anything about writer/director Kelly Fremon Craig either.
But here I am, reviewing Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret, the film adaptation of Judy Blume’s breakout hit that’s guided countless preteens through puberty since it was first published in 1970. It’s tough to believe that such a high-profile book went fifty years without a single adaptation in a live-action medium. What’s even rarer, this is apparently the one film adaptation out of a million that somehow managed to be better than the book it’s based on. But of course that’s not me saying that — that’s Judy freaking Blume herself saying that. Granted, she’s a producer on the movie, but still.
So, how is the movie on its own merit? Is it really that great as a coming-of-age film? Is there any possible way it could enlighten and inspire decades’ worth of young audiences like the source material did?
Well… yes. I honestly think so, yeah.
The eponymous Margaret Simon is here played by Abby Ryder Fortson, previously best known as Paul Rudd’s daughter from the first two Ant-Man movies. The plot begins when Margaret returns home from summer camp to find that a lot has changed while she was away. The gist is that her father (Herb, played by Benny Safdie) got a new and better job, so her mother (Barbara, played by Rachel McAdams) can afford to quit her day job as a painting teacher and focus on being a stay-at-home housewife. Even better, this means that the family can move out of their cramped and noisy New York apartment and live in a nice big New Jersey suburban house. Of course the move from NYC to New Jersey isn’t so massive, but it still feels like a world away to an 11-year-old kid.
Thus the film unfolds over the course of a school year as Margaret goes through sixth grade — her first and last year in a totally new elementary school before she goes on to middle school. Pretty much immediately, she makes the acquaintance of Nancy Wheeler (Elle Graham), who in turn introduces Margaret to her own circle of friends (namely Gretchen and Janie, respectively played by Katherine Mallen Kupferer and Amari Alexis Price).
(Side note: Because Janie is a black supporting character, we get a few quick shots to demonstrate how beauty standards and hair treatment are different for black women. Nice touch.)
The unfortunate trade-off is that Nancy is overwhelmingly superficial and obsessed with modern beauty standards. This naturally means that she puts herself and her friends under intense pressure to grow breasts, get their first periods, and so on. So it is that Margaret is made to feel insecure and less confident because she’s still flat as a board and she hasn’t started menstruating yet, so something must be fundamentally wrong with her. As a reminder, she’s not even thirteen at this point.
Paradoxically, Nancy makes a clear and overt case of ostracizing Laura Danker (newcomer Isol Young), who’s been wearing a training bra since the fourth grade and comes to her first day of grade school looking like a full-blown teenager. Given how Nancy puts such exorbitant value on hitting puberty as quickly as possible, it doesn’t make any sense that she and her friends should treat Laura like a freak outcast… unless it was really about jealousy on Nancy’s part all along. Oh, and for how much Margaret and Nancy and their friends actively wish and pray that they could finally hit puberty, they all seem to be blissfully ignorant of how much trouble it’s gotten Laura from her peers.
It would be tempting to call Nancy a bully, but the character is more complex than that archetypal label. Nancy never gets physically aggressive with anyone (except maybe her brother, which of course doesn’t count), but she deftly plays on the doubts and insecurities of others. Nancy wouldn’t insult anyone to their face, but she’s a ruthless gossip who’ll talk behind anyone’s back. More than anything else, Nancy is a hypocritical phony who’ll puff up her own self-image with ignorant lies and playground rumors about shit she doesn’t know anything about.
I don’t think Nancy means to be a bully, but her ignorant pride and obsessive need for attention nonetheless drive her to act like a bully and to serve that same function in the plot. Feels like there’s a valuable lesson in there somewhere…
With any coming-of-age story, there’s always the implicit question of precisely why the main characters want to grow up so badly. Do they want freedom? Respect? Do they want a job of some kind? Are they after a love interest? Is it just about getting a driver’s license or legal alcohol? What do these kids want that they can only get as adults?
With this movie, the answer’s a bit more mercurial. Put simply, the characters — most especially Margaret — are primarily motivated by the fear of missing out. Nancy puts so much stock in her bodily changes because she’s got something that nobody else has (namely A-cup breasts), and she’s going to play that for all the social status it’s worth for as long as she can. As for Margaret, everyone else around her is growing up and she doesn’t want to be left behind, especially if it means she won’t fit in.
The mystery is another crucial factor. These kids know that puberty is coming, but they don’t know what going through it will be like or who they’ll be on the other side of it, so why not get it over with and find out as soon as they can? But then Margaret and her friends find the hard way — as everyone inevitably does — that these huge developmental benchmarks are only a big deal until they actually happen. After that, it’s just a mundane part of everyday life.
What’s more, Margaret’s mother was disowned by her evangelical Christian family for marrying a Jewish man. Thus Margaret is pressured to figure out her relationship with her family and her views on spirituality even as she’s working to find her place among her peers at school. All these different facets of Margaret’s development are elegantly connected by her overarching need to figure out who she is and who her people are. Even and especially if that means figuring out how to reconcile her own independence with what everyone else wants from her.
Through so much of the movie, Margaret literally prays to God that she could be just an ordinary kid like everyone else. But then comes my favorite line of the movie, after Margaret has already tried and failed at finding religion in churches and synagogues. To paraphrase, Margaret says that she can only find God when she’s alone.
In other words, Margaret can only begin to define her own spirituality — and by extension, her morality and identity — when she’s removed from everyone else’s bullshit. The poor girl is so close to a massive world-changing revelation, it’s palpable.
While the film quite rightly puts most of the emphasis on Margaret’s development, we can’t overlook what her mother is going through. The film quite elegantly balances Margaret’s arc with that of Barbara, who’s struggling to redefine herself as a model housewife and parent. This despite the fact that she’s a terrible cook, her futile efforts at furnishing and redecorating the new house are a running gag, and the occasional glimpse shows that she’d so much rather be painting again.
More importantly, while Margaret has to deal with the family drama surrounding Barbara’s estranged parents, Barbara herself is obviously dealing with the exact same issue. While Margaret is navigating her own peer pressure, Barbara’s managing the various demands placed on her as part of the PTA. For extra symmetry, Barbara has to deal with Nancy’s mother (Jan Wheeler, played by Kate MacCluggage), the de facto head of the PTA. All these symmetries and parallels help to demonstrate that growing up is a continuous process that keeps on going well through adulthood, always a valuable lesson for the younger crowd.
But then we have Kathy Bates as Margaret’s Jewish grandmother (on Herb’s side, natch). Sure, Bates is a joy to watch and she serves admirably well as a comic relief character. But it feels like far more could’ve been done with the character. For instance, Margaret goes to visit her grandma in NYC a time or two, but there’s no mention whatsoever of Margaret’s old home or school or friends. Grandma was ideally placed as an anchor tying Margaret back to her old life in NYC, and it feels like so much could’ve been done with that, but the film never goes there.
I might add that while Margaret is trying to cope with so much social pressure and figure out who she is, her grandma is living her best life and doing whatever makes her happy now that she’s living on her own again. Margaret is a young woman padding her training bra and toying with menstrual pads to try and make herself older, while her grandmother is an old woman dyeing her hair and going on dates to try and make herself younger. There are all these potentially fascinating contrasts between the two characters, so many opportunities for the two of them to learn so much from each other, and they’re all left to wither on the vine.
Also, for some inexplicable reason, I find myself innately drawn to the classical maiden/matron/crone trinity. The film could’ve easily done something with that, and I’m sure a good in-depth scene with just Fortson, McAdams, and Bates would’ve been killer. Damn shame we never get such a moment.
Benny Safdie plays Herb admirably well as a support pillar for his wife and daughter. It’s quite remarkable how much depth Safdie is able to layer into his performance when the character has so little impact on the plot. Elsewhere, Echo Kellum does an admirable job holding down the role of Margaret’s teacher, which could’ve easily been a throwaway character.
This show really does belong to Abby Ryder Fortson and Rachel McAdams. Fortson does a fantastic job of anchoring the film and carrying us through Margaret’s personal growth. McAdams is good enough here to make me forget any doubts I ever had about her skill as an actor. But the unsung hero of the cast might just be Elle Graham. It would’ve been so temptingly easy for anyone else to play Nancy as a one-dimensional little twit, but Graham plays the character with fascinating levels of nuance. It’s alarmingly easy to sympathize with this character who didn’t know how much harm she was causing herself and others because she didn’t know how much she didn’t know.
On a miscellaneous note, I appreciate the lack of an overwhelming nostalgia factor in the soundtrack and the production design. The film is overtly set in 1970, but the presentation is so stripped-down and the story is so laser-focused on universal rites of passage that the whole picture has a timeless feel to it. There’s a strong sense that this could take place anywhere and at any time. (see also: “Calvin and Hobbes”)
That said, Kelly Fremon Craig shows an uncanny knack for knowing when to go for comedy and when to go for drama. My personal favorite example comes when Margaret buys menstrual pads for the first time, and the conveyor belt at the cashier creaks along slowly in a way that makes the whole scene more awkward and embarrassing in a delectably comical way. But then we have so many heartfelt moments when the filmmakers got out of the actors’ way so the characters would be free to pour their hearts and souls onto the screen.
It’s rare to see a film that captures the messy and uncertain nature of life in a way that makes for a coherent and captivating picture, but Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret. seriously works. It’s beautifully acted, carefully crafted, intelligent, heartfelt, brutally honest, and timeless in a way that will impact generations of viewers for a long time to come.
All around, it’s a solidly built coming-of-age tale. Though it sucks that the film is getting crushed at the box office by higher-profile blockbusters, this picture was clearly built to last through the long haul and there’s no doubt in my mind it’ll find its audience on home video. This is definitely one to look into.
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