Director: Kelly Freeman Craig
Screenplay: Kelly Fremon Craig
Based on the novel by: Judy Blume
Producers: Julie Ansell, Judy Blume, Amy Brooks, James L. Brooks, Kelly Freeman Craig, Aldric La’auli Porter
Starring: Abby Ryder Forston, Rachel McAdams, Elle Graham, Benny Safdie, Kathy Bates
BBFC Certification: PG
Duration: 106 mins
Judy Blume’s 1970 novel Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret has long been a source of comfort and inspiration for young female readers dealing with the horrors of puberty. For that reason above all, it has also long been a source of controversy. The subject of numerous bans since its publication, elements of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret such as its frank examination of religion have been a cause of overwrought hand-wringing by those who favour indoctrination over freedom of choice, but above all it is clearly the empowering way in which Blume gives a voice to young girls that has so frightened generations of patriarchal pummellers. The last thing such self-appointed moral guardians want is for girls to gain an understanding of their bodies and emotions that isn’t controlled by male overseers who’s main contribution to the topic is the comment “Eurrrghhh, menstruation? Eurrrgghhhh!” Of course, these same critics are equally afeared of a generation of boys who might be, and really ought to be, reading the novel too, growing up with a sense of understanding and empathy. Blume actually addressed this audience directly with a follow up book, Then Again, Maybe I Won’t, that examined puberty from the male perspective. The fact that this book wasn’t nearly as controversial is revealing but it is also telling that it isn’t anywhere near as famous or celebrated. The male audience, even of pubescent boys, has always been better catered for, whereas even as it gradually becomes less controversial, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret still feels like a quiet revolution because, though it can and should be read by all, it is very pointedly aimed at that most underserved audience of burgeoning young women.
Given the personal connection that Blume feels to this most personal of novels, she has long held out granting permission for a screen adaptation. But when she was approached by Kelly Fremon Craig, who’s charming and thematically-connected debut The Edge of Seventeen Blume had already seen and loved, Blume knew that the time to help guide Margaret to the big screen had finally come. With Fremon Craig tackling the screenplay herself and Blume as one of the producers (along with Fremon Craig’s mentor James L. Brooks, another factor in winning Blume’s approval), the chances of a version of Margaret emerging with all her edges sanded down seemed like less and less of a risk, while the strong cast that Fremon Craig assembled seemed to ensure a level of quality that Blume would insist upon if she was finally to share her beloved heroine with Hollywood. The result of that half-century wait is a glorious screen version of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret that avoids pretty much every pitfall imaginable to create a film that is accessible across the board but which doesn’t lose that hint of a text being surreptitiously passed round by an adoring, oppressed group of readers taking back their power.
The first thing that really struck me about Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret is how delicately and perfectly realised its 70s setting is. All too often, period pieces (and yes, I’m aware of the double meaning there, as are the makers of this disc’s special feature Bringing the Period to Life) are overly aggressive in their nostalgia, cramming in references to every fad, fashion and major news events with no sense of place beyond cultural touchstones. Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret achieves a feel of the 70s so strongly through subtle use of set decoration, costume and Tim Ives’ evocative cinematography that there is no need to keep reminding us of the era by waterboarding us with Glam Rock. There is a beautifully chosen soundtrack of contemporary music but it is woven in naturally, with none of the showiness of a Guardians of the Galaxy needle drop. Following the quiet, moving final moment, the credits roll to the delicate strains of Cat Stevens’ The Wind, a perfect choice for the elegant film that precedes it. Despite firmly establishing its period setting, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret transcends time. There are no smug jokes about outdated technology or styles and the fact that everyone isn’t clutching a device at all times doesn’t even register. Young viewers will connect with this material because it respects them and doesn’t reduce them to jabs about their perceived disconnectedness, as every film that portrays teens as being constantly glued to their phones patronisingly insists upon doing. Everyone here is a rounded character rather than a stock type and, while they are connected to and shaped by their time and place, there’s a universality and timelessness that makes them crucially relatable instantly and consistently.
Honouring Blume’s source material by remaining largely faithful to it, Fremon Craig’s screenplay is riveting. Funny without relying on gags, moving without ever being saccharine, relevant without being heavy handed, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret breezes by so enjoyably that you don’t even realise how effectively the emotional resonance is being layered in. One scene in a restaurant bathroom reduced me to tears before I even knew what had happened, and it did so through small, realistic character moments and not an iota of manipulation. It’s success was also down to the performance of Elle Graham, a standout in a very strong cast, who’s performance as the superficially confident neighbourhood girl Nancy contains multitudes and really ought to bag her a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination. While the bathroom scene is where she shines most, that is due to how effectively she has built the character through the film. As the small group of friends that she assembles, Amari Alexis Price and Katherine Mallen Kupferer are also great and, crucially, Abby Ryder Fortson does a perfect job of realising the main heroine, Margaret, with a restrained take on the pre-teen experience that, guided by Blume’s novel and Fremon Craig’s screenplay, pinpoints the complexity without resorting to cheap histrionics. Not only do the girls perform well separately but they utterly convince as a friendship group, partly because they got on well on set, an invaluable asset when portraying camaraderie. As the adults in Margaret’s life, Rachel McAdams, Benny Safdie and Kathy Bates also score big, with McAdams in particular being deeply sympathetic and naturally funny as Margaret’s mother Barbara. Together with Ryder Fortson, she crafts a mother/daughter relationship that is devoid of melodrama but infused with small, realistic tensions and joys. A scene they share towards the end of the film is positively incandescent, achieving that most difficult of feelgood tones that does not feel remotely forced.
Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret’s other major controversy was its commentary on organised religion. Just as the widespread objection to its topic of menstruation was obviously born of an entrenched misogyny, so the determination to ban the book based on a child being allowed to assess options and choose her own religion can only have been the result of oppressive zealotry. Blume’s examination of organised religion, as Margaret is caught between the devout parents of her own interfaith mother and father, is entirely respectful and doesn’t opt for satire or even critique of the religions themselves, instead focusing on Margaret’s more personal, less prescriptive relationship with her own version of God. Neither Blume nor Fremon Craig seek to posit Margaret’s own take on religion as the preferable alternative, so much as it is just right for her at that time of her life. It’s a gentle, sweet and progressive meditation on a big subject which, like everything in Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, attempts to respect the intelligence and choices of young girls rather than pander to a society that insists they must be taken in hand, indoctrinated into specific belief systems and made to feel disgusted by their own natural developments. Given the weight of bigotry and hypocrisy coming from the other side of the fence, Blume would’ve been well within her rights to create something more biting and derogatory. That she chose not to shows her good taste and dedication to what’s right for the story, a lead that Fremon Craig follows admirably. There are sure to be some critics of this adaptation who complain it is “woke” but, frankly, their diametrically opposed position in this case must be defined as “asleep”.
I came into Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret expecting to enjoy it. I’d really liked The Edge of Seventeen and I tend to enjoy Coming of Age films in general. But I’m completely bowled over by how much I adored this film. It has left me with both an urge to read Judy Blume’s work and an excitement to see what Kelly Fremon Craig comes up with next. It took 53 years to get Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret from page to screen, and every one of them was worth the wait. This is celluloid so rich with detail, love and care that you can almost smell the pages of a beloved, well-thumbed book emanating from the screen.
Lionsgate UK presents Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. on digital now and on Blu-ray and DVD 7 August 2023.
The DVD and Blu-ray Special Features are as follows:
-Finally That Time: Making Margaret
-Are You There Margaret? It’s Me, Judy
-The Secret Crew Club: Margaret and Friends
-Bringing the Period to Life: Designing Margaret
-Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret Roundtable Discussion