The 1970s-style title font and macramé-décor chic of Kelly Fremon Craig’s adaptation of the beloved Judy Blume novel Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret may at first read as retro (though Ann Roth’s costumes are so delicious I foresee a craze for double-knit schoolgirl pinafores). But with book censorship in American libraries at a 20-year high, this frank, funny, and tender movie plays as anything but nostalgic. A recently proposed Florida law that would forbid all discussion of menstruation in elementary school settings (an idea, it should be said, of jaw-dropping stupidity and cruelty) is cheerfully broken by nearly every scene in Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, the story of an 11-year-old girl in suburban New Jersey who longs as ardently to get her first period as she does to establish a personal relationship with the deity of the title.
Writer-director Craig’s 2016 debut The Edge of Seventeen established her as a keenly observant chronicler of adolescence. With Margaret, she takes that skill to the next level of difficulty, adapting a property familiar to generations of readers—one that its author long resisted turning over for cinematic adaptation—and finding new things for us to love in it, while staying true to those we loved already. In Blume’s novel, Margaret’s mother is a stay-at-home parent who paints a little as a hobby. In the film, as played by a never-better Rachel McAdams, Barbara Simon is a more ambitious and complex figure: an art teacher who gives up her job in Manhattan to move to the suburbs with her husband and daughter, unsuccessfully attempting to reinvent herself as a kitchen-bound PTA mom. These additions to the character of Margaret’s mother pull from elements of the author’s own life story: In the 1960s, Blume, too, was an unfulfilled stay-at-home mother in New Jersey, trying to find a way to express herself creatively while raising two children and keeping house for a working husband.
Lurking within this film’s coming-of-age story is a subplot about women’s liberation in the style of ’70s classics like An Unmarried Woman, with a radiant McAdams nearly stealing the show from the also-extraordinary newcomer Abby Ryder Fortson as Margaret. What keeps that theft from occurring is how fully the two seem like a real mother and daughter, each with her own inner struggles. Margaret is a girl aching to become a woman, while Barbara, who’s been estranged from her fundamentalist Christian parents since marrying a Jewish man 14 years earlier, is a woman in exile from the girl she used to be.
Though it’s remembered for its groundbreakingly matter-of-fact treatment of menstruation, the book Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret is equally if not more concerned with the effects of this dual-faith household on its heroine’s evolving spirituality. The daughter of a lapsed Christian and a secular Jew (played in the movie by Uncut Gems co-director Benny Safdie), Margaret develops her own private relationship with God in a nightly ritual of direct conversation that is half prayer, half diary-keeping. Craig’s adaptation treats Margaret’s religious questioning with as much curiosity and respect as it does her budding sexuality. One plot development that’s absent from the novel involves a confrontation between Margaret’s Jewish grandmother, played with gusto by a larger-than-life Kathy Bates, and her conservative Christian grandparents on the other side. The circumstances of this encounter seem contrived and the resolution a tad too hasty; the scene is one of the few missteps in a film that’s usually both faithful to the novel and flexible enough to adapt it to modern tastes (for example, allowing Margaret’s mother to be a complex character in her own right).
All this praise for the spiritual earnestness and sexual frankness of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret threatens to make it sound as if the movie were some kind of painfully earnest after-school special, when in fact it presents its preteen heroine and her world with playfulness and humor. On arriving in the suburbs, Margaret is ambushed by her neighbor Nancy (Elle Graham), an alpha girl and would-be sophisticate who promptly grills the new girl in town on the status of her menses, chest development, and experience kissing boys. After the excruciating ritual of a bra-shopping trip with her mother, Margaret is allowed into Nancy’s secret girls’ club, the Pre-Teen Sensations, whose meetings consist of compulsory revelations about crushes and the physical changes of puberty. Like Blume’s book, Craig’s film shows the downside of such exclusionary female bonding. Falling in with mean-girl Nancy briefly turns Margaret into a mean girl herself, as the Sensations gang up to spread nasty rumors about the most developed girl in school, Laura Danker (Isol Young).
Even the officious Nancy gets her moment of vulnerability when, late in the film, her mask of grown-up sophistication drops to reveal a scared child. This is a compassionate and thoughtful movie in the tradition of its producer (and the writer-director’s mentor) James L. Brooks, that champion of on-screen humanism who helped bring us The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Simpsons, Say Anything, Broadcast News, and As Good As It Gets. As was the case with those projects, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret offers the viewer a world that feels lived-in, rumpled, and real. Not every conflict gets resolved, and when our heroine’s dream finally comes true, her victory, as any crampy period-haver knows, is destined to be a Pyrrhic one. Still, the embrace she and her mother share when the big day arrives made for the biggest emotional jolt I’ve felt at the movies so far this year.
Judy Blume is suddenly all over the place lately, a development to be celebrated given how crucial a voice as honest and fearless as hers is to the moment of repression and censorship we’re currently living through. In addition to the new Margaret movie, there are TV or film adaptations in the works of her books Forever, Summer Sisters, and Superfudge, and the past few weeks have seen an onslaught of profiles and interviews featuring the justly revered author. In them, she speaks candidly about everything from book bans to abortion rights; an attempt by one journalist to misrepresent her remarks about online harassment as a statement of support for J.K. Rowling’s history of transphobic activism was met with prompt pushback against what Blume called the reporter’s “total bullshit.”
A recurring theme in Judy Blume Forever, the new Amazon Prime Video documentary directed by Davina Pardo and Leah Wolchok, involves Blume’s relationship with her mother, an emotionally closed-off woman who had little in common with McAdams’ warm, empathetic Barbara. Though she resisted talking about feelings and seldom expressed pride in her daughter’s literary success, Esther Sussman also faithfully typed up Judy’s manuscripts, never showing a sign of surprise or displeasure at their sometimes-explicit subject matter. But as Blume stresses in interviews in that documentary and elsewhere, the great gift her mother gave her was a love of reading. She was regularly taken to the library and left alone to rifle through whatever books she liked. She recalls with pleasure that no constraint was ever placed on her choice of reading matter. Now 85, Blume runs a bookstore with her husband in Key West, Florida, which boasts a section proudly labeled “Banned Books,” including many of her own. While the governor of her state seeks to empty out school libraries, Blume has become a passionate advocate for children’s freedom to read, to think, and to ask questions about whatever it is they want to know. To quote the last line of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, the book that more than any other may come to define Judy Blume’s legacy: Thanks an awful lot.