Movie review: ‘Are You There God’ is a revolutionary coming of age tale


Rachel McAdams (L) and Abby Ryder Fortson star in "Are You There God, It's Me, Margaret?" Photo courtesy of Lionsgate

Rachel McAdams (L) and Abby Ryder Fortson star in “Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret?” Photo courtesy of Lionsgate

LOS ANGELES, April 26 (UPI) — The film adaptation of Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret?, in theaters Friday, is still revolutionary. 53 years after the book’s publication, there is still far too little mainstream media that speaks honestly to young audiences about puberty.

In 1970, 11-year-old Margaret Simon (Abby Ryder Fortson) moves from New York City to New Jersey when her father, Herb (Benny Safdie) gets a promotion. Margaret makes friends with Nancy (Elle Graham), Janie (Amari Price) and Gretchen (Katherine Kupferer).

Nancy introduces Margaret to upcoming milestones like wearing a bra and getting her period. As Margaret anticipates these changes, she privately speaks to God in monologues that serve as both informal prayer and narration.

Readers in the ’70s probably couldn’t have imagined how graphic and explicit movies and television, even PG and PG-13 films, would get by the ’80s and ’90s. Yet even today, that tween or teen fair rarely tackles the subject of puberty.

There’s 13 Reasons Why dealing with issues like suicide, and To All the Boys dealing with first love, but Are You There God still stands out simply by rendering a faithful adaption of Judy Blume‘s book.

Margaret has a great mom in Barbara (Rachel McAdams) who will share with her daughter the downsides of wearing a bra. But, Barbara supports Margaret so if her daughter feels she’s ready for a bra, then it would be counterproductive for Barbara to try to talk her out of it.

Later, even more emotional conversations come up for Barbara. When Margaret asks about her maternal grandparents, Barbara has to tell the emotional story of why she doesn’t talk to her parents, with everything that affects Barbara, in a way Margaret can understand.

In addition to biological changes, Margaret also explores religion. She begins her messages to God just because she has heard that God is someone you’re supposed to talk to.

Margaret tries going to synagogue with her grandmother, Sylvia (Kathy Bates). Sylvia’s unabashed joy at her granddaughter asking to go to temple is priceless.

Margaret also visits a gospel Christian church, a white Christian church and Catholic confession looking for answers. Buddhism and other religions are not options for Margaret, which does seem consistent with the culture of suburban New Jersey, especially in the ’70s.

Herb is Jewishm Barbara is Christian and they overcompensate by removing religion entirely from Margaret’s life. They’re well intentioned to say Margaret can choose her religion when she’s an adult, but if she never experiences any religion, how can she make that choice?

Writer/director Kelly Fremon Craig explores these touchy themes with a touch so light it’s almost supernatural. The film just presents Margaret experiencing different lifestyles with genuine curiosity.

From a child’s point of view, it’s the adults who make religion harder to nagivate. Margaret is genuinely open to the word of God, in whatever form it reaches her, and yet there are certain adults who insidiously try to win Margaret over to their side.

When adults prioritize doctrine over human beings, it turns religion into a sport with sides. Even Sylvia can be guilty of overstepping.

While exploring these delicate issues, the film is fair to Herb and Barbara. They prioritize Margaret, take accountability for their mistakes in exposing her to hurtful scenarios, and set an example for how present parents can be without intruding.

Of course, a movie can’t answer the big question of religion in two hours, and it only proposes to begin the exploration. But, perhaps audiences can universally agree that imposing any religion on an 11-year-old is unlikely to result in a spiritual awakening.

Fremon Craig also conveys how eager children can be to grow up, and how scary it can still be no matter how many books they’ve read on the subject. Given the pivotal role menstruation plays in the plot, Are You There God conveys those moments without ever presenting graphic footage.

There’s so much more throughout Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret?. Classmate Laura Danker (Isol Young) began developing in 4th grade and the class mean girls slut shame her out of resentment.

Margaret gets to question whether she’s really hanging out with the right crowd, which is something people should continue to question into adulthood. But, the film also empathizes with the big talkers who may be masking their own fears about mature subjects.

Barbara has her own coming of age too, going from retired schoolteacher to overcommitted PTA mom to trying to find a healthy balance.

Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret? could have been made at any time since its publication. The film Fremon Craig made in 2023 will also stand the test of time for generations to revisit ever after.

Fred Topel, who attended film school at Ithaca College, is a UPI entertainment writer based in Los Angeles. He has been a professional film critic since 1999, a Rotten Tomatoes critic since 2001 a member of the Television Critics Association since 2012 and the Critics Choice Association since 2023. Read more of his work in Entertainment.

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