The road to the screen debut of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. is fifty-three years in the making. For many generations, Judy Blume’s beloved book has been guiding preteen girls through the treacherous, chaotic, terrifying, and mystifying years of puberty. In that sense, the shoes of the titular Margaret are massive. Fifty-three years is a long time to wait for something to come to fruition. In another sense, the shoes of Margaret are recognizable to almost anyone who has made it through those dramatic preteen years. The anxieties of middle school transcend time, space, and gender.
Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. follows Margaret Simon (Abby Ryder Fortson) as she begins sixth grade. Her parents (Rachel McAdams and Benny Safdie) have uprooted her from the life she loved in New York City and moved to a small New Jersey suburb. With this new life come new friends (Elle Graham, Katherine Mallen Kupferer, and Amari Alexis Price), new questions about growing up, and an ever-developing relationship with God. Her father is Jewish and her mother’s Christian, and so Margaret is neither. In the midst of all this change, Margaret tries to find some sort of stability in religion. Her goal, by the end of sixth grade, is to decide whether she is Jewish or Christian.
The source material feels impressively modern, and Margaret’s religious journey is still relatable today. Her parents spent much of their lives being forced into religious lifestyles that ultimately did not align with their own beliefs. Now Margaret’s grandparents (Kathy Bates, Gary Houston, and Mia Dillon) are adamantly pushing Margaret to choose a religion. It’s as if they don’t believe she’s a complete person until that identity is tacked on. Where Margaret ultimately decides to go is on her own, following a faith she finds in herself, not a religious text. There is no inherent value placed on any of these identities, but rather how we use these religious teachings to lead our lives. Ultimately, this journey pushes Margaret to reconsider the friends she makes and how she treats other kids in school. It has always been about treating oneself and others with kindness.
The film manages to capture the intensity of preteen friendships and the desperate, absurd lengths kids will go to as they try to grow up faster. It’s no surprise that this multifaceted magic was effortlessly captured by writer/director Kelly Fremon Craig. Her directorial debut, The Edge of Seventeen, was a sweet, coming-of-age high school movie about a teenage girl struggling to grow into herself. In many ways, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. is the precursor to The Edge of Seventeen. It’s hard to fathom that a character like The Edge of Seventeen’s Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) would exist without Blume’s foundation. Both films are set in transitional years in the lives of their protagonists, but Craig implements the same sincerity and earnestness to each. Craig understands how a young person can oscillate from angry to happy to devastated within seconds, and acknowledges that each one of those emotions is valid.
One of the main deviations from the book is the larger roles for Margaret’s parents. While the beats of their overall story are the same, the movie allows for a few introspective scenes that address the impact of religion and the move to the suburb has had on their lives. McAdams and Safdie join the ranks of TV/movie parents who are far cooler than anyone in real life. Sure, Margaret might think they’re lame, but no kid at that age could conceive that their parents have a shred of cool in them.
Even without the warm glow of nostalgia, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. has managed to create something just as meaningful as its source material. There’s a recurring theme of Margaret earnestly praying to be normal. To grow breasts, get her period, and like the “right” boy. It’s funny how trivial it all seems in retrospect. And how insane it is that there was a time in anyone’s life that menstruating was considered a status symbol. However, one of the reasons Blume is such a beloved author is because of the respect she gives to the emotions of kids. To Blume, the worries of puberty deserve the same amount of attention as global crises.
If the audience is years older than Margaret, it’s still easy to get swept up in her whirlwind of emotions because the film provides a chance to relive youth without actually having to go through puberty again. It’s fun to see her crushes, her friendships, and her escapades as the audience remembers their own. They remember their neighborhood friends, the way they bickered with their siblings, and the giggle fits that came out of nowhere at a moment’s notice. In many ways, Margaret feels like a friend. She may not have had to confront questions like race and sexuality in ways that others have, and she may have been created before some of us were born, but her questions about belonging, religion, and fitting in speak to a deep-rooted truth.
Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. is charmingly sincere and solidifies itself in the preteen canon of essential films. It’s middle-school-age humor without crudeness or cruelty. Once again, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. will be guiding a generation through this mystery known as life.