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Taking on the Sacred Text
Judy Blume’s 1970 best-selling young adult novel, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret is treated as the sacred text it has become in director and writer Kelly Fremon Craig’s 2023 cinema adaptation. In the main faithful to the book, Craig (whose other credit is another teen film) offers nostalgia for a simpler time, before social media and perhaps even before 1970, that is, before second wave feminism (Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique was published in 1963). The cultural milieu may reflect Blume’s own experience; she was 11—the age of the central character, Margaret—in 1949. It's a long way from the edgier, more contemporary, "Eighth Grade," Bo Burnham's take on young girls in the age of social media.
Religion is also in the mix, though it’s of a tepid sort.
The staying power of Blume’s novel owes much to its forthright treatment of issues related to pre-teen sexual development, chief among them menstruation. Blume touched a nerve with many girls and women in her vignettes about entering puberty: trying on sanitary napkins before one needs them, exercises for increasing one’s bust, the combination of shame and pride in one’s body. Religion is also in the mix, though it’s of a tepid sort, consistent with a mid-century ecumenicalism. The book remains controversial, especially for its consideration of pre-teen sexuality, and it has been banned from some school libraries.
Abby Ryder Fortson, right, is perfect as Margaret. Her mother, Barbara (Rachel McAdams) is played to excessive comic effect. Here the duo go bra-shopping for the not-yet-ready-for-it Margaret.
Abby Ryder Fortson carries the film with her intense, focused rendering of both innocence and a growing awareness of the adult world. It’s hard to imagine a more perfect Margaret, as she faces the camera, i.e., God, and as she tries to be accepted in her new 5th grade class in New Jersey (filmed in North Carolina), having been uprooted from her crowded, familiar Manhattan life. Fortson is supported by a trio of young actresses in the “secret club” of girls in her class. Elle Graham as Nancy is an almost-mean girl who leads the other three in her desire to be womanly. The other two club members are more like Margaret, naïve pre-teens who use an anatomy textbook and Playboy (first published in 1953 and only last year ceasing its print edition) to learn about sex. Katherine Mallen Kupferer (as Gretchen) and, as Janie, Amari Alexis Price (a person of color) suggest the universality of—at least in 1970 or 1950—the limited knowledge of most 11-year-old girls.
Above, the four members of the "secret club," learning about sex
through Playboy. From left, Katherine Mallen Kupferer as Gretchen,
Elle Graham as Nancy--the group leader, Amari Alexis Price as Janie, and Fortson.
Margaret pleads with God to let her get “It,” i.e., her period, and in so doing combines the religious with bodily functions. Though she pleads, Margaret doesn’t exactly pray to God. She’s been raised without any religion by a mother whose parents are fundamentalist Christian and a father who is Jewish. Her parents have decided to let Margaret find her own path to religion. She goes to Temple with her aggressive Jewish grandmother, Sylvia (Kathy Bates), who then declares Margaret is Jewish. She attends a rousing, colorful Black service with Janie, and a staid, white Protestant one with Nancy. Through a plot twist, she ends up in a Catholic confessional. Religion is boiled down to Catskills humor: A Protestant, a Catholic, and a Jew walk into a bar….
It’s the adults who are lacking in Craig’s vision.
The kids are alright. It’s the adults who are lacking in Craig’s vision. Margaret’s mother, Barbara, is the only other character one cares about. As played by the veteran Rachel McAdams, Barbara is a thwarted artist, at times a pathetic figure cutting out 5,000 useless fabric stars for the PTA and cooking a roast smothered with canned creamed soup, ala Betty Crocker. There’s a hint of feminism in Barbara’s desire to return to her art, but first we have to witness her ludicrous efforts to be the ideal mother, a stay-at-home Mom. It’s as if she’s never heard of Friedan, Gloria Steinem, Shirley Chisholm, NOW (the National Organization for Women, founded in 1966), or Bella Abzug, whose 1970 campaign slogan was “This woman’s place is in the House—the House of Representatives.” Nancy’s mother, Jan, is the stiff PTA President with upswept, sprayed, bouffant hair, a caricature of what Barbara imagines she wants to be.
The club members, right,
in unison, "We must.
We must. We must
increase our bust!"
Bates’s Sylvia is also overplayed. Grandma is a haven for Margaret, who can express herself more freely when with her than she can with her parents or friends. But the overreach of this character, insisting Margaret is Jewish when Margaret firmly believes she has not decided even if there IS a God, is never questioned by her granddaughter.
Men and boys are close to irrelevant. Margaret’s father, Herb (Benny Safdie) is another comic figure, injuring himself on a lawnmower he never had to use in the city, as he struggles to adapt to suburban tasks. There’s no chemistry between him and Barbara. People of color are also thrown into the movie stew, without any discussion of race. One of the club girls is Black (though not in the book). The 5th grade teacher is a kind Black man (though not in the book). There are a few Black children in the class. The large, well-developed girl who is picked on is a person of color, but the film wants us to be color-blind. The book and Blume’s vision of a suburban world no doubt were color-blind—as in all white.
“Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” toys with meaningful issues through statements and queries from Margaret, including her basic existential plaint: are you even there, God? She needs to find her way to her own decisions about people and life. But this tack is overwhelmed by nostalgia, characters that don’t matter, and comic scenes that vitiate serious intent. In one respect, at least, the book is more honest than the film; it grounds Margaret’s search for the appropriate place of worship in her social life: her decision will determine whether she joins the YWCA or the Jewish Community Center.
What’s the relevance today of a 1970 story? It feeds into the contemporary, legitimate concern about the well-being of young girls. That, the performance of Fortson as Margaret, and the polished and endearing production outweigh the film’s weaknesses.
Director: Kelly Fremon Craig
Starring: Abby Ryder Fortson, Rachel McAdams, Kathy Bates, Elle Graham, Katherine Mallen Kupferer, Amari Alexis Price, Benny Safdie
Country: United States
Language: English, Hebrew
Runtime: 106 minutes
Other Awards: 1 win to date