Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret review – lovably bouncy adaptation of an iconic novel
Kelly Fremon Craig's take on the '70s coming-of-age classic strikes an unerring balance between laughs, giddiness, and poignancy
In the annals of banned books – a pantheon being kept alive and kicking in the west by the cavemen in charge of Republican states in the US – it might seem strange to us now that a story as seemingly quaint and kind as Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret got landed in this kind of hot water. But there it found itself in the early 70s for its frank discussions of puberty and religion. It’s a tale that might not raise too many eyebrows now, but the fact in and of itself that it’s taken this long to reach the screen shows its enduring power, a power captured delightfully in Kelly Fremon Craig’s bouncy and loving adaptation.
It’s summer 1970, the start of a year of great change for the eponymous Margaret Simon (Abby Ryder Fortson), an 11 year old girl about to start a new year at school when a promotion for her chipper dad Herbert (Benny Safdie) means she and her family have to up sticks from New York to the New Jersey suburbs. Swiftly taken in under the wing of her new affluent and confident neighbour Nancy Wheeler (Elle Graham), Margaret spends the next school year in stages of flux, from her changing body to a newfound interest in boys to feeling torn between the Jewish faith of her dad and the Christian one of her mum Barbara (Rachel McAdams).
It’s a lot to take in for an 11-year-old kid, and Fortson is great as someone who is out of their depth but finding thrills in the fear. Craig directs all the kids really well, their ever-less-awkward friendships and strengthening bonds evident in both the writing and performances, and the collective idiocy of this gaggle of pre-teens (both the boys and the girls) is funny and affecting.
Craig mines the obvious laughs, but also the poignancy, especially in Margaret and her friends’ reaction to the girl in their class who hit puberty early, both ridiculing and jealous of the fact that she has boobs and gets periods. These rites of passage hold a terrifying yet compelling power over the whole group, and there is, for older audience members, inevitably a sadness in the kids’ rush to grow up and enter an adult world that they really don’t understand. Meanwhile, McAdams and Safdie make for an excellent parental duo, full of love, charm, and warmth, while Kathy Bates is film-stealingly fantastic as Margaret’s inspirationally headstrong granny Sylvia.
This is a novel that clearly means an awful lot to writer-director Craig, nostalgic less for the faithfully-recreated ‘70s environs than the end of childhood in general. There’s an earnest giddiness here that is hard to pull off, but this team (including legendary Simpsons bigwig James L. Brooks on producing duties) ends up perfectly dialled in to that tone. Unless you’re in Florida, it may no longer be a story with the power to shock – open discussions of menstruation and religious uncertainty are hardly novel in 2023 – but it really doesn’t need to when it has this much enthusiastic love to give.
Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret is released in UK cinemas on 19 May.Where to watch