Kelly Fremon Craig’s adaptation of the 1970 Judy Blume novel is sweet, timeless, and surprisingly fresh.
Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. is a film that manages to be both classic and frighteningly ground-breaking. Cinema has been saturated in sex since its very beginning: from the legs of detective movie femme fatales, to Marilyn Monroe’s white dress over a New York air vent, to that moment in Basic Instinct (1992). Film has shown us every salacious detail of female sexuality, and yet, when Margaret Simon (Abby Ryder Fortson) pulls down her knickers and puts on a sanitary pad for the first time, a shocked silence falls over the cinema. In a movie that otherwise feels so innocent, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. bravely goes where no film has gone before and talks about female puberty in a frank, honest, and unflinching way.
Based on the Judy Blume book so popular with pre-teen girls in America’s ’70s, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. tells the tale of a young girl, Margaret, who is suddenly torn away from her beloved New York City when her father Herb (Benny Safdie) gets a promotion that moves the family to New Jersey. Once there, Margaret has to negotiate a new school, new friendships, puberty, romance, and an assignment from her teacher that encourages her to explore her religion. Herb is Jewish, and Margaret’s mother Barbara (Rachel McAdam) was raised Christian. They have decided to let Margaret choose her own religion when she’s old enough, but Margaret has decided that that time is now. It isn’t a particularly new story—but that doesn’t matter. Almost fifty years after Stand By Me (1986) and The Goonies (1985), we finally have a film that celebrates a preadolescent girl figuring out her identity.
Margaret faces the terrifying terrain of training bras, bathing suits, boys with armpit hair, and spin-the-bottle—a preadolescent landscape against which the simple task of choosing a religion seems to pale in comparison. At the same time, Barbara has to adjust to a whole new life of her own. She gives up her art teaching and tries to play the part of a stay-at-home mum, helping out with the PTA, learning how to cook, and struggling to reconnect with her estranged parents (who have disowned her for marrying a Jewish man). McAdams is wonderful, and this portrait of normal family life provides us with all the same love, pain, and tension of a more complicated dramatic film. It is a celebration of the ordinary, navigating all the shame and fear of being a teenage girl, as well as the ecstasy and excitement. Cathy Bates is delightful as Margaret’s outrageous Jewish grandmother Sylvia, and Benny Safdie is a thoroughly charming and believable dad-hunk for his short stints of screen time. Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. is a sweet and inoffensive suburban adventure, its ’70s setting calling to mind the nostalgia that has made shows like Stranger Things so popular.
It’s a shame that it took this long to see a screen adaptation of Blume’s novel, and even sadder still that it still feels somewhat shocking to be discussing periods and bra sizes on the big screen. And indeed, it is cinema’s loss—Nancy Wheeler (Elle Graham) announcing her double A cup size to her jelaous friends is comedy gold. Like Angus, Thongs, and Perfect Snogging (2008), a story about older teenage girls working out the dynamics of boys, bras, and unnecessarily complicated underwear, this movie places importance on the internal lives, conflicts and struggles of young girls, and in the process validates their stories. Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. does something so obvious and consistent in literature that we never even realised it was missing in film—it reminds us that little girls are people too.
Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. isn’t modern. It isn’t troubling. It isn’t thought provoking. It isn’t ‘difficult’ cinema. It’s comfortable, clean, and middle class. To some people that might make it silly or unimportant, especially beside contemporary coming of age films like Moonlight (2016) or The Florida Project (2017) that also address more serious themes of poverty, race, and queer sexuality. But in the same way that films like Love Simon (2018) faced criticism for representing a version of the gay experience that was less dark and traumatic than usual, it is worth remembering that optimistic representations of difficult subjects are still worthwhile, even if it means they are aspirational or escapist instead of grimly realistic.
If we want cinema to tell more complicated stories about the inner lives of young girls, maybe we need to start at the start, which is what Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. does. If it’s light and uncomplicated, at least that means eleven year old girls can watch it too. And if it feels outdated, it’s because a film like this should have been made fifty years ago. When it comes to women’s stories on screen there is catching up to do – and Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. is just the beginning.
Words by Eli Dolliver
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