On the pecking order of people in society we take seriously, teenage girls come dead last. Raging with hormones and newly learning how to battle the pressures of the patriarchy, they are perceived as our most unhinged and unreasonable bunch, and so we tend to ignore everything they have to say. The film adaptation of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret is the antidote.
From the first moments of the film—wherein Margaret (Abby Ryder Fortson) returns to New York City from summer camp and finds out that she’s moving to New Jersey (the horror!)—it’s evident how seriously the script, like Judy Blume’s beloved 1970 novel, takes pre-teen girlhood. Be it first bras and first periods, or a reckoning with spirituality and faith, every corner of Margaret’s life is examined with sincerity. I was delighted by how this movie deftly bounced from the comedic awkwardness of having a male cashier while trying to buy period pads (not to bleed on, but to practice bleeding on) to the absolute end-of-the-world despair of Margaret and her kooky grandmother, Sylvia (Kathy Bates), realizing that they’ll be seeing a lot less of each other because of the move. Whether silly or actually life-altering, the stakes of every scene are equally high, each of them possessing the power to morph Margaret into the person she’s supposed to be.
Confronted with so many changes (with her body, her surroundings, her social life, and her family) it’s no surprise that when Margaret’s teacher assigns her class a year-long research project, she chooses the subject of religion and starts talking to God. In one after-school scene that finds Margaret working with her classmate Laura (Isol Young)—a girl who’s ironically ostracized for physically developing far earlier than her peers—she slut-shames Laura in a fit of frustration, causing Laura to run out of the library crying. Stunned by her own meanness, Margaret chases after Laura and follows her into a Catholic church, where Laura was planning to give confession. Margaret decides to enter the confession box herself and asks God, “Why do I only feel you when I’m alone?”
While Margaret’s question is profound beyond its years, her conversations with God aren’t always as such. After her first day at her new school, Margaret races up the stairs to her bedroom, drops to her knees, and says with clasped hands and as fast as she can muster, “Please, just do this one thing for me. Let me be normal and regular like everybody else. Just please please please please please please please.” For Margaret, God is not only a source of direction, but a way of bargaining for her desired outcomes in the harrowing journey through adolescence—because how else are you going to make sure that you’re not the last one of your friends to get her period? She also visits her grandmother’s synagogue and her friend’s Black Christian church in search of a sense of belonging.
But as occasionally wise as she might be, the best thing about Margaret is that she’s just a regular pre-teen growing up in the ‘70s. In Are You There God?, pre-adolescence is not a stage to blow past—instead, it’s a time to explore in earnest. Thankfully, these humiliations and thrills are relatively harmless and all too amusing: As Margaret and her friends tumble through the confusing landscape of ~becoming a woman~, they earnestly chant ludicrous things like “I must! I must! I must increase my bust!” willing their budding breasts to grow faster and much, much larger. Margaret begs her dad (Benny Safdie) to use her crush Moose’s (Aidan Wojtak-Hissong) mowing services, and her friend Nancy (Elle Graham) lies about getting her first period (via postcard, of all mediums). It is so relieving to watch young girls be young girls, eons away from the pre-teens of today who seem to me like they have to achieve growing up way before their time.
Another one of the many joys of the film is how it is able to show the interiority of adults, too. Understandably missing from the book was a full awareness of the problems that Margaret’s mom, Barbara (Rachel McAdams), grapples with as a whimsical painter who is suddenly thrust into the depths of PTA-run suburban life. What’s more, she’s confronted with the dilemma of potentially reconciling with her devout Christian parents, who disowned her after she married Herb, who is Jewish. And while we’re used to seeing McAdams as the protagonist, she effortlessly plays a doting, sometimes overbearing, but generally well-intentioned young mother who values her daughter’s independence as much as her happiness.
McAdams’ best performance arrives in one of the most tense scenes of the film, during an unprecedented dinner that includes Margaret, her parents, both sets of grandparents, and Sylvia’s friend from out of town. Their awkward meal is followed by even more awkward living room chit chat, which devolves into a debate over Margaret’s religion (her potential bat mitzvah is just around the corner, after all). As the bickering explodes into fighting, someone asserts that “Margaret is nothing,” causing her to burst into tears. Before storming up the stairs and into her room, Margaret says that she doesn’t “care” or “believe in God.” The adults are left speechless, watching as their own religious impositions crush Margaret and her spiritual independence. Barbara turns to Herb and says something to the effect of, “Me,” then beats her chest with her fist, her voice cracking. “I did that.” With just a few words, McAdams conveys the weight of a mother feeling like she’s failed her daughter, even after making every effort to be a “perfect” mom.
Since it came out more than 50 years ago, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret has been a contested read for its supposedly salacious content (because apparently, young girls shouldn’t learn about their own bodies) and banned from libraries all over the country, including at Blume’s children’s elementary school. Just this month, an anti-trans writer attempted to misconstrue Blume’s words to fit an agenda. And as young people’s knowledge of themselves continues to be heavily policed, this film adaptation comes as a gift—one that fiercely advocates for the beauty of girlhood in all of its agonizing, terrifying, but absolutely exhilarating glory.
“Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” (PG-13) releases in theaters Friday, April 28.