A film review by Craig J. Koban May 9, 2023

RANK: #7


2023, PG-13, 106 mins.

Abby Ryder Fortson as Margaret Simon  /  Rachel McAdams as Barbara Simon  /  Kathy Bates as Sylvia Simon  /  Benny Safdie as Herbert Simon  /  Wilbur Fitzgerald as Morris Binamin  /  Elle Graham as Nancy Wheeler  /  Ethan McDowell as Mr. Wheeler  /  Mia Dillon as Mary Hutchins  /  JeCobi Swain as Freddy Barnett  /  Gary Houston as Paul Hutchins  /  Aidan Wojtak-Hissong as Moose Freed  /  Sloane Warren as Mrs. Fisher

Written and directed by Kelly Fremon Craig, based on the novel by Judy Blume


I'm often asked by many:

What makes any particular film great?

That's an inordinately difficult question to answer, but one metric - among many - that I've used over the years is that a great film has an ability to speak personally and deeply to me, even if I'm not the target demographic.     

I thought about that all the way through writer/director Kelly Fremon Craig's ARE YOU THERE GOD? IT'S ME, MARGARET, which is based, in turn, on Judy Blume's seminal 1970 novel of the same name.  It's a coming of age dramedy that follows the ebbs and flows of a young girl in the early 70s acclimating to a stressful move from New York to New Jersey and adjusting to the limitless pressures of new social circles and puberty.  Craig is no stranger as a chronicler of adolescence and high school life (she previously made one of the finest films about modern teenage life and youth culture with her extraordinary THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN), and she finds herself in similar terrain again, albeit in a different time in the past and with slightly younger characters.  I don't usually throw out superlatives like perfect very often when describing movies, but as far as this well established genre is concerned, ARE YOU THERE GOD? IT'S ME, MARGARET is so perfect in so many countless little ways, like in its authentic performances, thoughtful writing, sensitive handling of its themes, and emotional honesty.  

So...yeah...it's pretty great.  

The protagonist in question is Margaret (played in one of the year's most natural and effective performances by Abby Ryder Fortson), who has just experienced a joyous summer at a New Hampshire summer camp in 1970, the kind of camp that just about anyone that went to one as a kid can relate to.  This 11-year-old New Yorker is about to have her world thrown completely upside down when she returns home.  Her parents, Barbara (Rachel McAdams, perfectly cast and offering career-high work) and Herb (Benny Safdie, quite good as well), have to painfully reveal to her that they're moving to New Jersey so that Herb can peruse a much more lucrative and better paying job.  The thought of leaving her friends and loving grandmother, Sylvia (a crackerjack Kathy Bates), instantly traumatizes young Margaret.  Later that night, she pitifully kneels by her bed, looks up, and asks if God is there.  She hopes that He's listening.  She makes one simple prayer: 

"Please don't let New Jersey be horrible."  

A modest request.   

The journey from the hustle and bustle of big city life to the more quaint and cozy New Jersey suburbs is a uniquely stressful one for Margaret.  As she tries to make sense of her new surroundings on day one, her new neighbor, Nancy (Elle Graham), seems almost unnaturally friendly and inviting.  Nevertheless, she does try to make her new pal in Margaret feel comfortable and even invites her to join in with her super secret tight knit club of BFFs with Gretchen (Katherine Mallen Kupferer) and Jamie (Amari Alexis Price).  During their club meetings, the girls discuss everything about crossing the road and entering the highly sought after domain of womanhood...and all of them are desperate to get there as soon as possible.  Margaret might be the most desperate, and as she's trying to process her new home, neighborhood, friends, and school, her relationship with God (well...one possible God...more on that in a bit) gets closer and her conversations and confessionals with Him grow more frequent by the day.  All she asks of God is to provide guidance and, uh huh, finally - finally! - allow for her to get her first period.  Predictably, stressful roadblocks impede Margaret at every turn, and concurrent to this is her mother's journey too, who now has to face being a stay-at-home mother for the first time in her life (she quit her job as an art teacher for the move) and struggles to find meaning with all of her newfound free time.



As already alluded to, ARE YOU THERE GOD? IT'S ME, MARGARET makes for a sublime companion piece to Craig's THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN in the ways both films examine the growing pains of young women, but in Margaret's case she's a few years younger and lives in an era fifty years removed.  As she also did with her last film, Craig here shows great care, patience, and understanding with her young characters and gets inside their heads to establish how they psychologically tick.  Margaret's battles are not too unlike those of the lead character in THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN in terms of processing the whirlwind of emotions that rush through her as she battles to make the right choices about everyday problems.  Margaret also has to delve into the unpredictable social hellscape that is new friends that may or may not be fully trustworthy.  In a very perceptive manner, Craig doesn't paint, for example, Nancy as a vengefully mean-spirited girl in her interactions with Margaret.  Her control freak tendencies and lies that she perpetrates later are born more out of insecurities and anxieties than they are steeped in wickedness.  Margaret is then left to disseminate what's truly meaningful when faced with such transgressions, which segues into her ties with God.  One thing that ARE YOU THERE GOD? IT'S ME, MARGARET absolutely nails is its portrait of young girls dealing with so many conflicting emotions while growing up and all of the panic-inducing terror that results.   

One of the more fascinating angles of the film is how considerate and democratic it is with its religious themes.  Growing up for Margaret also involves coming to grips with her spiritual identity.  This is brought to the forefront when one of her kindly new teachers questions her about why she wrote about disliking "religious holidays."  He gives her a school-year-long assignment to analyze her thoughts about religion.  Through the course of the film, we learn that her mother was born into a staunch Christian family and that her father comes from a Jewish clan.  In one of the most well acted and heart-wrenching scenes of the film, Margaret asks Barbara why she and her father have allowed her to pick whatever religion she wants as she gets older (after refusing to assign her one).  Barbara - trying to maintain outward poise and strength while holding back tears - tells her daughter that her Christian parents disowned her because they refused to accept her marrying a Jewish man.   Margaret's mind is thoroughly blown, but she commits herself to approaching both religions with an open mind and arms, attending the church services of both while trying to understand their contrasting theologies.  I can't think of too many other coming-of-age films that have characters tip-toeing through issues of maturing sexually and religion, but this one does and does so with refreshing candor.    

But, make no mistake about it, ARE YOU THERE GOD? IT'S ME, MARGARET also hurtles its characters head first into atypically frank scenes about what happens to girls as they become women.  Craig is delicate when it comes to this material and handles all of these respective young girls and their fanatical nature about becoming women with nuance and tact.  There are scenes in the film that are simply not in most other coming of age films about girls, especially when it comes to the remarkably nerve-racking ordeal of them learning about menstruation and getting their first period.  None of them fully understand that there's no specific timeline when one will get it...all they know is that they must get it...like...now.  Things become more dire when Nancy - the self-anointed alpha-female of the club - wants to mature so badly that it has a negative spill over effect on her pals, especially Margaret.  So many scenes with these girls are wonderful pieces of observation, like, for example, how the girls pump their fists in the air while screaming "I must, I must, I must...I must increase my bust!" while trying to get out of their training bra period (yeah...they learn that chanting doesn't work).  Then there's a well handled scene when one of the girls does, in fact, get her period, but it happens at the least opportune time (more than most other films of its ilk, Craig's wisely understands that puberty doesn't ever follow a pre-ordained schedule).  Then there are other superbly rendered moments, like when Margaret gets stuck in a closet with the school hunk after a game of spin the bottle at a party.  The boy kisses her and she glows with awe struck approval.  That memorable moment in her life comes crashing down when she discovers that this boy is a total dick, leading to feelings of betrayal.  I'm quite sure that a lot of us have been there.  

So much of this sounds like material imported from countless other coming of age films, but ARE YOU THERE GOD? IT'S ME, MARGARET never plays them up for TV sitcom worthy contrivances.  The microcosm of Margaret's world feels wholly real and authentically drawn, especially when it comes to the overwhelmingly cringe worthy levels of pure unease that affects these girls from day to day as they aspire to grow up.  This is not limited, though, to Margaret and her friends, seeing as Craig devotes quite a bit of time to Barbara as well and her yearning to find relevance in her new home environment.  She once had a purpose as a teacher, which is now gone because of her new homemaker status.  Craig doesn't look down on stay-at-home moms (that's a full-time job in its own right), but rather tries to frame how Barbara struggles with inadequacies alongside her daughter's bought with peer pressure and all pre-teen dilemmas contained within.  Barbara now finds herself in the painfully mundane world of domestic duties, furniture shopping, and attending PTA meetings with overbearing mothers that she can't stand.  McAdams is so enthralling here as this beleaguered mother, but she doesn't portray her in simplistic terms.  I remember growing up with John Hughes high school comedies and - as an adult reflecting back on them - they drove me crazy for how they sometimes made the adult characters (parents and teachers) come off like idiotic stooges.  ARE YOU THERE GOD? IT'S ME, MARGARET reveres both its parental and child characters.  In an unexpected way, Craig's film becomes a story of self-actualization of both mother and daughter.

And let's not forget about Abby Ryder Fortson in the titular role, and she has the unenviable task of carrying most of the film's heavy comedic and dramatic lifting on her young shoulders, and she does so with incredible poise and genuineness, and both her and McAdams, in tandem, make for one of the best daughter/mother tandems in recent movie history (their final scene together speaks volumes towards that).  ARE YOU THERE GOD? IT'S ME, MARGARET isn't a splashy film.  It's a low-key affair and made with modest economy and execution.  However, if you look past its simple facade you'll gain an understanding as to how penetratingly deep it goes as a coming of age story and how it relays the passions, desires, traumas, victories, and setbacks that typify young girls like Margaret that are on a quest to escape childhood.  And Craig is now two for two in a row when it comes to looking at adolescent growing pains, with a few religious curveballs thrown in for good measure here.  More importantly, ARE YOU THERE GOD?  IT'S ME, MARGARET spoke to me, even though I couldn't begin to understand what growing up as a girl in early 70s America was like.  My pressures were different growing up in late 80s/early 90s Canada, but the fragility and concerns of Blume's main protagonist - trying so very hard to mature into an adult, and experiencing the hardships that accompany such a journey - resonated profoundly with me. 

So...yeah...it's pretty great. 

  H O M E