'Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret' captures spirit of Blume's YA classic

Katie Walsh
Tribune News Service (TNS)

What a wonder that the film adaptation of Judy Blume’s beloved 1970 young adult novel “Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret” is as lovely, heartfelt and, indeed, deeply radical as the original text. Blume long resisted granting permission for her work to be adapted to the screen, but when “Edge of Seventeen” director Kelly Fremon Craig and producer James L. Brooks approached her about adapting "Margaret," the 83-year-old author knew her storied work was in the right hands.

Fremon Craig proved her ability to capture the nuances of teenage life in “The Edge of Seventeen,” and with “Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret,” which she also adapted, she delivers a wonderfully lived-in family dramedy about religion and sexuality, and the importance of girls’ stories. It’s a film that is simultaneously warmly entertaining and downright revolutionary, considering the current state of discourse and legislation about women’s bodies in our country.

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We first meet Margaret (Abby Ryder Fortson) at summer camp, a feminine utopia of gloriously embodied girlhood: swimming, jumping, laughing, eating with her friends, the girls fully expressing a sense of liberated, uninhibited joy in their bodies, which are unscrutinized and unimpeded by any outside forces.

This montage is a brilliant introduction to the story, emphasizing the rude awakening Margaret experiences when she’s ripped from her childhood home, a cozy, bohemian Manhattan apartment, and deposited across the river in a New Jersey suburb, separated from her dear grandmother Sylvia (Kathy Bates). It’s an upwardly mobile move that nevertheless leaves the Simon family floundering for their identities — Barbara (Rachel McAdams) struggles to be a good housewife, while dad Herb (Bennie Safdie) flails at yard work, and Margaret must wade into the lion's den that is the sixth grade, with all its attendant gender politics.

Rachel McAdams, left, and Abby Ryder Fortson star in "Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret." The movie opens Thursday at Regal West Manchester, Queensgate Movies 13 and Hanover Movies 16.

A bewildered Margaret is thrown into the gauntlet of adolescence via her new neighbor, the unabashed and bold Nancy (Elle Graham), who introduces our heroine to bust-increasing exercises and the necessity of practicing kissing on a bedpost. In Nancy’s “secret club” (no socks allowed), Margaret finds a much-needed group of allies and a safe space in which the girls talk with anxiety and excitement about the realities of puberty. But Nancy rules with an iron fist, fomenting a toxic dynamic of competition and bullying.

Much of “Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret” is about the private and often confusing physical details of changing bodies and the harrowing journey of navigating these transitions in relationship to other people. But it’s also about the way that Margaret develops as a person — intellectually, morally and spiritually. With a Jewish father and a Christian mother who raise her in a religious void, her teacher, Mr. Benedict (Echo Kellum) suggests Margaret do a research project on the subject of religion.

She tries out temple, to the delight of Sylvia, and a Southern Baptist church, a Protestant Christmas Eve Mass and even dabbles in Catholic confession. All the while, she chats with God about her innermost thoughts and feelings, processing the complexities of her social and family life. Whether or not she believes, Margaret’s “God” is a confidant and friend that exists outside of the power struggles and religious divisions that have shaped her family life for better or for worse.

From left, Abby Ryder Fortson, Amari Price, Elle Graham and Katherine Kupfere star in "Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret." The movie opens Thursday at Regal West Manchester, Queensgate Movies 13 and Hanover Movies 16.

Fremon Craig brings a fluid sense of easy rhythm to the film, which is highly specific to its 1970 setting but fresh and contemporary too. The period setting remains true to the book, but it also highlights that so many of these questions and issues remain the same, some five decades later. Steve Saklad’s rich and detailed production design brings us into this world, bursting with macrame and houseplants and tapestries, but it also tells a story, in the “Teenage Softies” sanitary napkins or the disastrous living room that Barbara stalls in furnishing.

It’s the people populating this film that make it so beautifully real and moving. Fortson brings Margaret’s tweenage anxiety to vivid life as she struggles to figure out who and how she is in the world. Graham is hilarious and heartbreaking as the ostensible antagonist, her outsized bravura punctured by a wrenching moment of true vulnerability. McAdams and Safdie as Margaret’s loving but frazzled parents are remarkably real and sincere, discrete characters in their own right.

Fremon Craig both situates and updates Blume’s classic text while maintaining the authenticity and intimacy with which so many readers connected. She draws out the themes that feel as trenchant as ever, especially the essential truth that bodies, in all their mysterious and unruly ways, cannot be controlled, not by ourselves, and not by others. Our bodies — ourselves — are ours alone, as are our actions, our lives and our stories. “Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret” proves to be a powerful, and moving, reminder of this crucial life lesson that can be all too easy to forget.

‘ARE YOU THERE GOD? IT’S ME MARGARET’4 stars (out of 4)Rated: PG-13 (for thematic material involving sexual education and some suggestive material)Running time: 1:45