Spoiler alert: Yes, God is there. “There” being the mind, heart and soul of not-quite-12-year-old Margaret Simon (rendered wonderfully with humor and winsomeness by Abby Ryder Fortson), who would like divine intervention so she can: get her period, grow breasts, fit in with her friends and determine to which, if any, religion she belongs.
In other words, Simon is struggling with a combination of puberty and existential angst, and she’s doing so in a very specific time and place: 1970, in the wood-paneled, green-lawned New Jersey suburbs where her parents have unceremoniously relocated her from New York City just in time to start sixth grade.
Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, of course, is based on the 1970 Judy Blume novel of the same name, a book that has been read by millions, banned periodically since its publication and remained, despite the significant cultural shifts in the last half-century, significant enough to finally earn a big-screen debut.
If you’ve been hiding out from popular culture, Judy Blume is having a moment; a new documentary about her also debuted on Amazon this month (Judy Blume Forever). The 85-year-old writer serves as producer on Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, and remains an unflinching champion of reading and anti-censorship efforts (she and her husband run an independent nonprofit bookstore in Key West, Florida).
The film mostly hews to its source material. Margaret isn’t the only Simon searching for answers: Her mother Barbara (a terrific Rachel McAdams) is taking the suburban relocation as an opportunity to become a stay-at-home mom versus an art teacher. She’s also reached out to her estranged conservative Christian parents who balked when their daughter married a Jewish man (a family show-down over which religion Margaret should follow is the only new material this viewer noticed). Margaret’s glamorous grandmother Sylvia (a hilarious Kathy Bates) has to learn to let go a little bit now that the family has decamped—although she jumps to take her granddaughter to Temple (and to see some live Gilbert and Sullivan, of course).
But those subplots, though threaded well throughout the film, are secondary to Margaret’s coming-of-age concerns. Writing for the New York Times, Elisabeth Egan notes the novel’s importance for “the girls of Generation X,” who grew up with rotary phones, listening to the radio in the hopes of hearing their favorite songs. In this way, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret’s belated film debut is perhaps less a tribute to its ongoing relevance than its nostalgic value for middle-aged women who love Judy Blume. Fortunately, we are legion.
+ Moving performances; excellent 70s aesthetics
- Missed opportunity for Judy Blume cameo
Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.
Directed by Kelly Fremon Craig
With Ryder Fortson, McAdams and Bates
Regal, Violet Crown, PG-13, 105 minutes