It feels like a Judy Blume spring. Hard on the heels of the Netflix documentary about the much-loved American author who made her name in children’s and young adult fiction, we’re now treated to the film version of one of her most popular novels. And despite its 70s setting Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret has an unexpectedly timeless quality.
That’s not just down to the book. The choice of The Edge Of Seventeen‘s director, Kelly Fremon Craig, gives us an idea of what to expect – a warmly compassionate and funny look at a young girl growing up. On the face of it, this is yet another proverbial coming of age story, but now Fremon Craig turns her attention to an eleven year old peering over the precipice of adolescence with a mixture of excitement and apprehension. She’s the Margaret (Abby Ryder Fortson) of the title who, with her twelfth birthday on the horizon, finds herself uprooted from New York to New Jersey when her dad (Benny Safdie) lands a big new job. Initially reluctant to give up city life and her friends, she eventually falls in with a group of girls full of constant curiosity about the life changes they’re about to experience.
Bloom’s honesty about the realities of life raised eyebrows when the book was first published. Periods, sex, buying a bra and just about everything else associated with adolescence simply weren’t talked about. So, for anybody who remembers those times, the film isn’t just a nostalgia trip: it also resurrects memories of awkwardness and apprehension. But it’s just as relevant for today’s young audiences, highlighting the different attitudes of the 2020s, where honesty and openness are accepted as the norm and the underlying shame that went with those of fifty years ago has receded into the distance.
As the title indicates, the film also has a strong religious angle, involving divides and prejudices that are depressingly still familiar. Margaret’s mother is Christian, while her father is Jewish and, while they’ve decided their daughter should wait until she’s grown up to choose her faith, their marriage has come at a cost. Her mother’s parents refuse to accept her choice of husband and they’ve never spoken since, so Margaret has never met her grandparents. Navigating the divisions caused by adult prejudices is perhaps the biggest challenge she faces and, thankfully, the God that she speaks to in private in her bedroom never gives her an easy answer.
It could have been awash in sentimentality but one of the film’s great strengths is that it never strays over that line – or even gets close. Its many themes – including the mother’s reluctance to participate in numerous PTA activities run by what look like a Stepford Wives cohort – are all examined with honesty, tenderness and a knowing humour. That approach is helped by a well-chosen cast, particularly Rachel McAdams who, once again, shows the extent of her acting range as the loving mother constantly balancing the needs of her growing daughter with her own, personal ambitions. Ryder Fortson makes an appealingly awkward Margaret, while Benny Safdie steps away from his usual gritty roles to show us a softer side. It is genuinely a family film, one with lessons, one that entertains and one that gives everybody in the audience something to think about.
Drama | Cinemas, 19 May 2023 | Lionsgate | Cert: PG | Dir: Kelly Fremon Craig | Abby Ryder Fortson, Rachel McAdams, Kathy Bates, Benny Safdie.