This film version of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret comes to us at a time, doesn’t it? We have certain politicians — and I’m not naming any names — who are trying to ban books that make narrow-minded old puritans uncomfortable. Judy Blume’s book about a preteen girl has a long history of being censored by people who think girls are icky, which is undoubtedly one reason it has taken more than 50 years for a movie version to reach us. Good news: If they ban the book in your school library, the film is a worthy adaptation that most people will find amusing.
Because I never was a 12-year-old girl, I only caught up with the book recently — what can I say? My primary-school teacher read me Tales of a Fourth-Grade Nothing and Superfudge but not this book. If you share my predicament, I suppose a plot summary will be necessary. In 1970, 11-year-old Margaret Simon (Abby Ryder Fortson) returns home from summer camp to find that her dad (Benny Safdie) has received a promotion and their family is moving from New York City to the suburbs of New Jersey, where she’ll have a green lawn and her mother (Rachel McAdams) won’t have to work teaching art classes anymore, which is what Mom thinks she wants. Though her interfaith parents have vowed not to raise Margaret in any religion, she prays to God anyway for guidance with her new neighborhood, new friends, and her first menstruation, which a health film at school promises her is coming.
Writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig previously helmed the sorely underappreciated The Edge of Seventeen, and she tones down her foul-mouthed wit to PG-13 levels here without losing too much sharpness. Her handling of Margaret and her friends’ reaction to seeing her dad’s copy of Playboy is smashingly funny, and she adds material to the script that gives her actors more comic business. Fortson (maybe you saw her play a country music star’s daughter in Forever Your Girl or as Ant-Man’s daughter in the first two of those movies) does a dance routine after stuffing her training bra with rolled-up socks. Kathy Bates pilfers scenes as Margaret’s cool Jewish grandma, describing life alone in the Big Apple: “I read somewhere that having no loved ones around makes your life expectancy drop drastically, but, you know, I’ve had a good run.”
The subplot about Margaret’s mom overextending herself by volunteering for too many social committees doesn’t really pull its weight, but Craig does nail the hypocrisy among Margaret’s new circle of friends, as the alpha girl (Elle Graham) brags about growing her breasts early — the bikini top she often wears says otherwise — while slut-shaming the tall girl in their class (Isol Young) whose boobs actually have come in. Then, too, when Mom’s parents (Gary Houston and Mia Dillon) visit her a decade after disowning her for marrying a Jewish man, the evening goes south in an all-too-believable way that shows Margaret the downside of religion.
In a vacuum, I might say that this film adaptation is too tame and that I wish it had taken a few more chances. I don’t live in a vacuum, though. I live in a place where a certain ex-president — again, not naming names — freaks out about a woman’s periods and millions of people still vote for him. I live in a place where one of our major political parties — I’m still not naming names — forces women to give birth even when they’ve been raped or doing so will jeopardize their lives. I live in a place where the material in Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret is still subversive more than a half century after the book first saw print. That’s more than a bit sad and shameful, but it’s also what makes this film’s honesty and forthrightness about girls’ and women’s bodies so welcome in our multiplexes.
Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret
Starring Abby Ryder Fortson and Rachel McAdams. Written and directed by Kelly Fremon Craig, based on Judy Blume’s book. Rated PG-13.