The thing that over-dramatized coming-of-age stories misses is the messiness of just existing. There doesn’t need to be some overarching traumatic event to capture just how scary and weird growing up is, and that messiness and uncertainty is what Judy Blume captured in her books, and now, it’s what Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret captures in its script. Judy Blume’s work has impacted generations. My mother read her, I read her, and my nieces have too. But despite its time period, this coming-of-age story manages to speak across generations.
Directed and written by Kelly Fremon Craig, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret is based on Judy Blume’s groundbreaking novel of the same name. Capturing the humor and unashamed approach growing up, the film follows 11-year-old Margaret (Abby Ryder Fortson) is uprooted from her life in New York City for the suburbs of New Jersey when her dad gets a promotion at work. While she tries to adjust to the new school and life, she also has to deal with the messy and tumultuous throes of puberty with new friends in a new school. She relies on her mother, Barbara (Rachel McAdams), who is also struggling to adjust to housewife life, and her adoring grandmother, Sylvia (Kathy Bates), who isn’t happy they moved away.
As a woman who grew up as a girl who didn’t want to perform gender as expected, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret captures the uncertainty of life and gender for me. It captures the weird feeling of otherness when those around you know more about your body than you do. Still, more importantly, it captures the way that being a “late bloomer” in things identified as necessary for womanhood and femininity can send you spiraling om amxiety. And while fear, uncertainty, and anxiety feel like whopping big words that are used to denote grand moments in life, those words can also be used to talk about just existing. Getting your period is scary, and not getting it is scarier. Increasing your bust is the goal until you finally do and it’s frustrating and uncomfortable. That back and forth of who we’re supposed to be and who we are is something that Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret addresses through the innocence of adolescence perfectly.
Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret doesn’t only confront ideas of maturing as a girl, it also confronts the thorniness of religion and how what you practice can impact how people view you. Handled with care, the film showcases an exploration of religious identity that is refreshing to see on the big screen and in a film with young girls as the target audience. This is particularly true in the ways religion is still being used through legislation to control women’s bodies and set moral expectations on how we should perform our gender. In other cases, it restricts who and when they can have access to feminity.
While Margaret doesn’t deal with issues around abortion or trans rights, she does have to process what being different from everyone else around her means. She isn’t Jewish. She isn’t Christian. She’s just a girl talking to a version of god in her room and unsure about what way is right. And even in this exploration, the film only ever chastises religion when it is used to hurt others, primarily in the case of Margaret’s family. While the film can be looked at from both an idea of maturing as a girl and performing elements of that gender, like being forced to wear a bra by her friends, kiss boys she’s unsure of, and feel bad about not having a large enough bust. Additionally, it can also be looked at as an exploration of identity beyond that.
The film is about choosing who you are in relation to yourself, yes, but also to your family and others. Margaret has to choose what religious path she wants to walk. She has to choose to feel okay in her own body despite the pressures around her. And ultimately, Margaret has to choose how she treats other people, particularly if she will partake in bullying that comes from expecting other girls to act in a specific way. And Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret doesn’t do this through subtext. Subtext has never been the point of a Judy Blume story. Instead, the film confronts these elements of self and identity as they would come up in any young person’s life. The audience sees them, and then we see Margaret handle them, and through her prayers, we hear her struggles.
This is where I point out that the success of this film in capturing relationships and identity is because of the script, of course, but it’s also because of the actors involved. Abby Ryder Fortson as Margaret and Rachel McAdams as her mother Barbara is the perfect duo. The audience explores adolescence through Margaret, and the moms and older women in the audience explore their own lives; however small the inclusion is through Barbara. The film is accessible to all ages in a way that shows how each age intersects, instead of holding them apart. Even the inclusion of Kathy Bates as Margaret’s grandma Sylvia speaks to different generations of women at the same time. Being able to reach all of these generations is something stunning and done through a carefully crafted story that embraces each woman and girl individually and together. This extends to seeing Margaret’s friends as well.
Ultimately, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret is a triumphant success in adapting Blume’s work and will bring it to yet another generation who in no uncertain terms can be told that it’s okay to be different. It’s okay to have a different relationship with gender than those around you. It’s okay to bloom late. It’s okay to just be you regardless of the pressures around you. And this message is highlighted not by sunshine and rainbows, but by showing the uncertain storm that everyone faces when growing up. Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret is about making it okay for us to accept the messiness of life, because we will find ourselves through it.
Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret is in theaters nationwide April 28, 2023.
Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret
Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret is a triumphant success in adapting Blume’s work and will bring it to yet another generation who in no uncertain terms can be told that it’s okay to be different. It’s okay to have a different relationship with gender than those around you. It’s okay to bloom late. It’s okay to just be you regardless of the pressures around you.
Kate Sánchez is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of But Why Tho? A Geek Community. There, she coordinates film, television, anime, and manga coverage. Kate is also a freelance journalist writing features on video games, anime, and film. Her focus as a critic is championing animation and international films and television series for inclusion in awards cycles.