In that fragile space between girlhood and womanhood, there exists that magically uncomfortable, yet monumentally exciting world of female adolescence. It’s filled with questions, confusion, first kisses, and the requisite white itchy “grow” bra. Welcome to the film Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.
Based on the hugely popular 1970 Judy Blume book of the same name, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. is a cinematic delight. For fans of the iconic tween book of yesteryear (which includes yours truly), the bar for this movie was high, as the book was so good. Would the film live up to our literary imagination? Here’s a groovy 1970’s “yes.”
Are You There God? tells the tale of 11-year-old Margaret Simon who unhappily moves with her parents from New York City to suburban New Jersey in 1970. There, she meets new girls, new boys, new teachers, and comes face-to-face with some new thoughts and yearnings. And she shares all these with God. Yes, you guessed it. Cue Margaret on the eve of her big New York City move-out, as she says those celebrated words out loud to herself for the very first time – “Are you there God? It’s me, Margaret.”
Told over the course of one school year, Are You There God? is an easily framed movie that glides along at a gentle pace. Margaret develops a crush on a neighborhood boy named Moose (he’ll mow your house’s grass for $5), and she becomes a member of a secret “girls club” helmed by Nancy (a girl who proudly professes to Margaret that her breasts are already growing). These girls are all about wearing their first bra, describing their first period if or when they get it, and keeping a boy book to detail their love interests. They also swear to be honest with each other.
Chock full of smiles, laughs, and plenty of embarrassing OMG moments experienced by our protagonist Margaret (played sweetly by actress Abby Ryder Fortson), these puberty peccadilloes in turn make the audience smile, laugh, and gasp “OMG,” too. But the movie is wise to embrace situational subtlety instead of flash. There’s a welcome understated quality to this screen adaptation that aptly mirrors Margaret’s quietness. Though not an introvert, she has a thoughtful reticence as she absorbs her new age and surroundings.
She’s figuring everything out as she goes along, and therefore the loud treatment of situations, or even loud art direction, loud costuming, and the rest, might’ve proved a distraction. Sure, there’s flower-power Dusty Springfield and funkadelic Stevie Wonder songs, among others, that accent some scenes to give them that fun 1970s flair, but they don’t overpower.
Instead, director Kelly Fremon Craig kindly allows us to focus on Margaret’s rich inner world. This world also grows to include important questions Margaret has about her interfaith family of a Christian mom (played by actress Rachel McAdams) and a Jewish Dad (played by actor Benny Safdie). Cue the poignant dining room scene in which Margaret asks her mom about the non-existent relationship with her Christian maternal grandparents. Why aren’t they in their lives?
Or cue the heartwarming scene when Margaret, on a New York City slumber party visit with her Jewish grandmother (played wonderfully by Oscar winner Kathy Bates), asks if she can go to temple with her grandmother some time. What’s Judaism all about? Will she like it? The next day, her grandmother is over-the-moon-elated to show off her granddaughter Margaret for the first time to all her friends at the temple. “My granddaughter!” Her smile is beaming.
Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret. is a coming-of-age film that could’ve easily gone the well-trotted Hollywood route of capitalizing on the sweet or sour “innocence” factor which is, after all, inherently baked into any coming-of-age story. Think movies overflowing with scenes involving big, exaggerated surprised eyes, or a sarcastic deadpan joke delivery. But, while the film does a good job of showcasing Margaret’s innocence especially when it comes to new things such as a first kiss and first bra, it also offers up a multi-faceted response from Margaret as she encounters these topics. Something new is often not all good or bad. Adolescence can be a lot of gray, and this film shows that.
Abby Ryder Fortson was a commendable casting choice, as she successfully “conveys the gray” alongside being awesomely likeable and endearing. For instance, in the scene of her first kiss, she swings from apprehension, to wonder, to excitement all within a span of a few seconds. We’re riveted to witness her reaction to this adolescent milestone.
She and the film don’t venture into over-the-top saccharine sweetness during this “innocent” moment. Nor does she or the film give commentary on how this first kiss isn’t with her secret crush of Moose, and so this could’ve been interpreted as a negative sour note for Margaret – an “innocent” moment gone wrong. Instead, the film keeps moving, and as a result keeps us interested in Margaret’s singular, intriguing story.
But for as expertly subtle and multi-faceted as Are You There God? is, it’s also beautifully open and direct about topics central to female tweendom. This film stays true to the book. Judy Blume’s beloved book is not without its detractors who feel that its topics are way TMI! The book has even been banned in some places. Do we really need to read about a sanitary napkin, and how a character Margaret learns to use one? Is this too much info? And who can forget the book’s famous mantra chanted by the girls in their secret “girls club” – “I must, I must, I must increase my bust!”
The film doesn’t shy away. Instead, it shows us that if handled with care, and a sprinkler-run of fun, these blush-worthy experiences can be cutely memorable, and more importantly, very developmentally crucial. In fact, the movie goes one step further, giving us an intimate view into the inner worlds of supporting characters such as Margaret’s mom and Jewish grandma. We’re offered insight into these two females, wherein their poignant mini-journeys have us saying – “Aw.” It’s not just Margaret we end up caring about. Margaret’s story becomes, in part, a story about intergenerational female-hood.
In the end, Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret. tackles a whole host of big questions. Will Margaret get together with her secret crush? Will she get her period? Will she self-identify as Christian or Jewish? No spoilers, but some of these questions get answered, and in the film’s trademark subtle, understated way. Tenderness reigns.
A shift in dynamics with Margaret’s female classmates also takes place, where we’re left empathizing with Margaret who is taking her very first steps in the topsy-turvy mine field that is adolescent friendships. In the finale, we’re laughing and crying at Margaret’s emotional and physical evolution, and understanding that this evolution also includes her female friendships. What’s more, we know that although her evolution has been massive thus far, it’s still really just the beginning for Margaret. There’s more for Margaret on her journey through adolescence.
For the legions of fans who ardently love the book Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret., seeing this story on the big screen is worth the 53-year wait. And that’s saying a lot, as many screen adaptations of best-selling books notoriously crash and burn. Perhaps expectation is to blame, as every person is endowed with their own interpretation of a written word, character, place, or even a whole plotline. Tampering with the perfection that a person has conjured in their brain from reading a book is risky business.
In this case, a viewer could be turned off in one second when seeing Margaret on the big screen for the first time and feeling that she doesn’t “look the part.” Yes, that would be “the part” they’ve imagined in their mind. What’s more, in the Marvel Universe-filled arena of Hollywood 2023, a reality-based, feel-good, coming-of-age story like Are You There God? is likely a tough sell to movie studio execs.
But the film has thankfully enjoyed much success. It has been included in numerous “Best of 2023” movie lists, and received an impressive 95% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes. Critics and audiences alike are enamored by this touching dramedy.
Word on the street is author Judy Blume, now 85-years-old, is also a fan. Although initially reluctant to give approval for her book to be made into a shiny Hollywood film, she has since been seen out and about with the film’s director and actors, and participating at an early screening premiere in her home of Key West, Florida. Cameo alert – she also briefly appears in the movie as a neighbor walking a dog. See if you can spot her!
And what other Judy Blume books would Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. fans like to see made into movies? Faves include Deenie, Blubber, and a whole handful of others. In the meantime, however, audiences are still dancing happily along, circa the 1970s, to Margaret Simon and her snappy prayers to God. That wondrous, brief time of adolescence is paradoxically timeless. It will never go out of style.
Where to Watch: Netflix
I'm a published poet, travel writer, and "vintage" pop culture blogger. I love movies, and especially those dusty old classics. I "heart" the rich history of film.