When her family moves from the city to the suburbs, 11-year-old Margaret navigates new friends, feelings, and the beginning of adolescence.
While I was in grade school, devouring every “Encyclopedia Brown” book I could get my hands on, apparently my female peers were reading Judy Blume’s “Are You There, God? It’s me Margaret.” Having finally gotten around to reading it at age 57 and seeing Kelly Fremon Craig’s delightful adaptation, I can see why. Insightful, honest, and funny, this coming-of-age story provides a template that I’m sure other authors in Blume’s wake tried to duplicate. Again, I’m late to the party here but it becomes readily apparent why this work has endured. Blume isn’t afraid to tackle hard-to-talk-about issues yet is able to do so with a sense of humor and candor that’s refreshing and all too rare.
Margaret (Abby Ryder Fortson) is a lucky 11-year-old. She has two loving parents, Barbara and Herb (Rachel McAdams and Benny Safdie), a doating grandmother (Kathy Bates) and many friends. However, upon returning home from summer camp, she’s greeted with a bombshell. Seems the family is leaving the comfortable New York City neighborhood she grew up in and is moving to New Jersey. Of course, this is the end of the world as far as Margaret is concerned as she will be leaving her friends behind, and a new school is in the offing.
But just as her mom predicted, Margaret does make new friends and settles in nicely at school. However, she falls under the spell of Nancy Wheeler (Elle Graham), a mean girl in the making who Margaret initially thinks is fun, loyal, and smart. Discovering this girl is not who she seems is one of the many life lessons Blume’s heroine learns over the course of her 8th grade school year.
Much was, and continues, to be made about the intimate issues Blume addresses, those that concern the many physical changes Margaret and her peers are undergoing. Like Blume, Craig handles these moments with a deft touch, these scenes taken seriously yet with a slight bit of humor beneath. A bit more weighty are scenes dealing with spiritual questions Margaret is trying to get answers to. Torn between following her grandmother’s Jewish faith and exploring various forms of Christianity, the conclusions she draws prove poignant and are a significant part of her maturation process.
More than anything, this is a story of self-actualization. Margaret is lucky in that she’s allowed to seek her own path by her understanding parents, finding the courage to go her own way in the process. She learns the consequences of her actions, as well as how to make amends when necessary. And while this may sound obvious and dull that couldn’t be further from the truth. A sense of fun and optimism courses through the film, as Margaret’s curiosity is the truest sign of her character. She is eager to see what life holds for her, the questions she asks are essential to her being, the answers spurring yet other questions. Her inquisitive nature coupled with her genuine concern for others make Margaret who she is and those who love her recognize this gift. Watching this curious girl blossom into a kind young woman is the quiet power the film possesses.
Craig knows that being able to convey her message sincerely and with humor is the key to the film’s success and obviously dictated her casting choices. Neither Fortson nor McAdams force the intimate moments they share, while the rest of the cast is genuine in their approach. “Margaret” relies on honesty in its message and tone; thankfully those burdened with the task of delivering this message are up to the task.
Judy Blume’s beloved and previously banned book “Are You There, God? It’s me, Margaret” finds its way into the hands of screenwriter and director Kelly Fremon Craig (“The Edge of Seventeen, 2016). Craig brilliantly and lovingly interprets the angst and confusion of what it’s like to be an 11 year-old girl navigating the waters of growing up in the film adaptation of the book.
Whether you know or remember the story of the novel makes no difference as Craig’s interpretation finds the perfect balance of love and humor for this tween and her family. Craig also finds a way to add depth and complexity to the Mom and Grandmother roles which, in essence, becomes a coming of age movie for all ages.
The film stars Abby Ryder Fortson as Margaret and Rachel McAdams as her mom with Kathy Bates as Grandma or perhaps as Craig said to me in a recent interview “Glamma,” and brings us into the depths of Margaret’s world as she moves to a new town, meets new friends, and grows up to see the world through a different lens.
Margaret is a typical 11 year-old enjoying 11 year-old things, but her new-found friend circle is a little different than her previous group. Nancy (Elle Graham) latches on to Margaret and as the leader of the pack, overwhelms Margaret as she joins this clique of girls. The girls all openly discuss subjects such as boy crushes, their first kiss, wearing a training bra, and even the taboo subject of getting their periods. Margaret, yearning to get these items checked off her list as quickly as possible, questions God as to why she hasn’t been able to grow her chest even after certain exercises and reciting “We must, we must, we must…” You know the rest and admit it, you said that when you were that age, too.
Margaret asks and confides many things in God as she asks him/her questions about her life. It’s much like a diary and Margaret’s sweet innocence begins to be derailed as she learns about religion and how this came between her mom and her maternal grandparents. One of my favorite scenes of the film (and there are many) is when Margaret and Mom openly talk about the issues of the past and Margaret sees her mom differently…as a woman with feelings. And Margaret’s relationship with her needy and glamorous grandmother is especially endearing as Sylvia (Bates) and Margaret have that special connection that endears you to them both. These two matriarchs ground Margaret in ways that she isn’t even aware particularly as those growing up boxes are ticked off one by one.
“Margaret” is as charmingly awkward as watching “Eighth Grade” but one whose honesty hits home with every female in that tween time. Fortson’s performance is sheer eloquence as we are privy to her thoughts and feelings every step of the way. Relationships are key in this story and Craig fine tunes Margaret’s interactions with everyone from her mom and grandmother to the misunderstood classmate and a first-year teacher. Finding yourself and your own path places you in many crossroads during this time of your life and “Margaret” takes you back in time to your own childhood. It also creates an opportunity for a mom and daughter to openly discuss the difficulties of this period in a girl’s life and what to expect from the future.
I can’t recommend this movie enough especially for mothers and daughters, but also for any gender to better understand how difficult it is to be a girl of 11 years of age.
3 1/2 stars