I am not a woman. I did not grow up with sisters. My personal experience is not one where I read Judy Blume books or had empathy for the struggles of young girls. Of that being said, Kelly Fremon Craig’s film adaptation of Blume’s classic book Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret. transcends any genre bias to deliver one of the best films of the year so far.
Centering on sixth-grader Margaret Simon (Abby Ryder Fortson), is a sixth-grader who moves to New Jersey from New York with her parents (Rachel McAdams, Benny Safdie). Margaret is not only at a transitional period with the move, but on the brink of puberty and all that comes with it. If that wasn’t enough, Margaret finds herself on a quest to find God, stuck in between the Christian and Jewish faiths.
The transition from girl to woman is obviously the major push of the story, but Margaret’s quest to find religion is given equal footing. Margaret wants to feel God in her attempts to find her way, but her trips to various houses of worship only give her more questions. Only in her private conversations with God does she feel him. The film smartly avoids any grand proclamations, but instead asks questions that an intelligent 11-year-old should ask about God and religion.
While the transition to female “womanhood” might be the driving narrative force, friendship is the crux of that struggle. Margaret’s group of friends Nancy (Elle Graham), Janie (Amari Alexis Price), and Gretchen (Katherine Malen Kupferer) all share the same anxieties and desires. The foursome share a secret group complete with boy books for their crushes, a requirement to wear a bra, and an adorably naïve exercise chant to increase their bust size. Margaret’s struggles are better realized thanks to the shared experiences of the other girls. Friendship cinema at its best.
For a book as successful as Blume’s, you would think the film would have been made sooner. 52 years is a small sacrifice to make in order to have Fortson embody the role she was born to play. It might sound like hyperbole, but Fortson is asked to give one of the most complex, emotionally wrought, and layered performances I’ve ever seen from a juvenile performer. Not only does she deliver in every way, she lives and breathes Margaret inside and out. Her vulnerability, confidence, and emotional intelligence that never crosses over the line of precocious annoyance is the key to the success of the film.
McAdams does not seem like the type of performer to begin to play moms, but she fits the role like a glove. Barbara isn’t a kept 60s housewife, but she isn’t the 70s flower child either. She balances the two worlds she is stuck in between with apprehensive excitement. Her performance is in no way flashy, but she is successful due to immense emotional availability. Whether it’s her willingness to fit in at the PTA, or attempting to reconnect with her estranged parents, McAdams’ inherent warmth and wholesome kindness lifts her performance among one of her best in her underrated career.
As perfectly cast as Fortson and McAdams are, Kathy Bates similarly steals each scene she appears as Margaret’s grandmother. Despite the backlash to her Oscar nomination for Richard Jewel, Bates proves once again why she is such a dynamic comedic presence. Safdie doesn’t have a ton of characterization, but his job is to get out of the way and let the ladies take the spotlight. He has a few moments to shine, and he makes the most of it. He doesn’t elevate anything he does, but he also doesn’t embarrass himself.
Fremon peppers the film with an appropriate amount of cultural touchstones and styles to make it feel like 1970, but is able to maintain a measure of reality and feel. This isn’t a film covered head-to-toe in 1970s fashions and cultural references, but rather than a tone of what 1970 was actually like.
I am a man in my 30s with no connection to the literature of Judy Blume. Why does the film transcend the genre? Because it’s just that good. The film hits on poignant themes with excellent performances. But more than anything else, it’s funny and entertaining. Each joke lands and each emotional moment is well-earned. It also helps that the film doesn’t have a villain.
Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret. is not meant for a guy like me, but it’s too good of a movie for any of that to matter. Sometimes, the quality supersedes the limits of its genre.
Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret? opens in theaters on Friday, April 28th.
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