Some coming-of-age dramedies draw humor from the cringiness of pre-teendom, when our bodies change faster than our brains can process. Others focus on the frustration of living in that emotional and spiritual thicket between being a child and an adult. Finally, a few aim to satisfy our appetite for gooey nostalgia, with a loving eye for a bygone time and place. And then, occasionally, you get a movie like Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, which does all three. In an instant, this becomes one of the finest coming-of-age films ever made.
Based on the classic YA novel by Judy Blume, the story follows Margaret Simon (Abby Ryder Fortson). She’s a typical tween girl, living in New York City, circa 1970. Margaret is close to her slightly-bohemian parents (Rachel McAdams and Benny Safdie), along with her doting, eccentric grandmother (Kathy Bates). All seems well, until mom and dad drop a bombshell: He has a new job, and the family is moving across the river to Jersey. For this eleven-year-old girl, Newark might as well be Neptune. She’ll never see her friends or grandma again! As they pull into a new neighborhood, Margaret couldn’t be more sullen.
To make matters worse, Margaret finds herself at an existential crossroads. Her Jewish father and Christian mother have compromised by pulling their daughter in neither direction. Despite good intentions, this tabula rasa has only resulted in mounting confusion. As emotions begin to well up in Margaret, she takes her frustration to God, whoever He–or She–might be.
Luckily, Margaret quickly settles into her new neighborhood. She quickly befriends Nancy Wheeler (Elle Graham), who masks her insecurities with a layer of false bravado. Nancy inducts Margaret into her clique of girlfriends, but insists on a few ground rules: No socks, no secrets, and everyone must wear a bra, whether they need one or not. Oh yeah–nobody talks to Laura Danker (Isol Young). She’s taller, has breasts, and makes out with boys behind the A&P. Gross!
Ironically, everyone in Nancy’s gang is eager to start puberty. They do exercises to grow bigger chests. Each girl must announce when she gets her period, and when she hooks up with a boy. Margaret complies with Nancy’s rules, but she also feels the pull of being different: While the girls crush on the school’s cocky brat (Zackary Brooks), she likes the quiet, curly-haired boy (Aidan Wojtak-Hissong) who cuts the family’s yard. Margaret also suspects Laura Danker might actually be cool, and Nancy is simply bullying her.
Writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig successfully translates everything great about Blume’s book, without a false note anywhere. In fact, she does it by mixing tones that might otherwise sound discordant: Margaret is built on frank subject matter, but the film maintains a vibe of breezy, childlike innocence. The comedy is often big and broad, but the characters always feel like actual people. Blume’s material has big things to say, but the story never feels preachy or maudlin.
To a person, the actors lock right into Craig’s groove. As Margaret, Fortson brings an endearing naïveté, along with the volatile mixture of empathy and insecurity so common to kids that age. She’s relatable and lovable, every step of the way. As her mother, McAdams has to find new levels of patience, especially when she makes missteps as a parent. (Stories like this often make the mistake of treating the parents as infallible.) Bates perfectly plays the blind, batty love of an obsessed grandparent. And let’s not forget Graham, whose Nancy could either end up as the hero in her own story, or the villain in someone else’s. It’s a deceptively complex part, and she nails it.
On the subject of complexity, Blume’s book has been beloved and controversial, all at once. Because it deals with maxi pads and training bras, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret has been frequently banned from school libraries. I remember hearing puritanical rage about it in my little hometown. One of my teachers snidely labeled it as “smut.”
She couldn’t have been more wrong. Both the book and this movie should be essential components of a preteen’s education. Hell, they’re leaps and bounds ahead of the awkward, antiseptic sex-ed videos junior high kids have to watch. Blume’s work speaks to a universal truth that everyone going through this fumbly, regrettable phase of life needs to hear: You aren’t alone, and your feelings are valid. Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret may not be artsy, or epic, but it is one of the best films of the year.
106 min. PG-13. On demand.