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Nathan Weinbender reviews "Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret"


One of the reasons Judy Blume’s young adult novels have stirred up controversy is that they confront the adolescent discomfort, confusion and embarrassment that so much kid lit either soft-pedals or ignores. Her 1970 novel Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret became a Gen X touchstone—and a frequently challenged book in school libraries—because it so cogently and bluntly put a voice to the thoughts of an intelligent, sensitive girl both horrified and obsessed by puberty.

As a writer, Blume has a bone-deep understanding of how teenagers think and feel and express themselves, and young Margaret was perhaps the most potent of her creations. More than 50 years later and Blume’s landmark novel has finally been translated to the screen by writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig, whose own film The Edge of Seventeen is one of the great unsung teen films of recent years.

Craig really embraces the tenderness and honesty of Blume’s work, and her adaptation of Blume’s signature book is a small, carefully observed gem. It begins in the summer of ’70, but it pokes at adolescent anxieties that are timeless. 11-year-old Margaret Simon, played by Abby Ryder Fortson, comes home from summer camp to discover that her dad has a new job and they’re moving from New York City to the suburbs of New Jersey.

As she prepares to go into the 6th grade, Margaret worries about which friend group she’ll join and becomes even more conscious of which kids are developing faster than she is. The movie is structured almost as a series of vignettes exploring Margaret’s fears, desires, failures and triumphs. It also grapples with issues of faith in frank, surprising ways: because of her parents’ interfaith marriage—her mother (Rachel McAdams) was raised in a conservative Christian family, while her father (Benny Safdie) is Jewish—Margaret can’t decide whether or not she’ll even be a religious person, and she vents her frustrations aloud to some version of God.

The years before you become a teenager are perhaps the time when you’re at your most vulnerable, when you become so impossibly aware of yourself and your body and the space you occupy in the world. It’s also a time when you start to think of grown-ups differently, and I was surprised that the film spends so much time fleshing out the adults in Margaret’s life. Her mother has stopped working as an art teacher and is struggling to fit into the role of housewife. Margaret’s grandmother (played by Kathy Bates), meanwhile, finds herself alone now that the Simons have moved out of the city, and she sees it as an opportunity to renew herself in her twilight years.

It’s the central performance of Abby Ryder Fortson that makes Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret such a lovely coming-of-age film. She avoids all the smarmy traits of your typical cutesy kid performance, and she feels like a real pre-teen—observant, impetuous, curious, easily wounded. It’s those deep, sometimes contradictory, emotions that explain why this story has endured for 50 years, and why it will still be relevant for 50 more.

For Spokane Public Radio, I'm Nathan Weinbender.


Nathan Weinbender is a co-host of Spokane Public Radio’s Movies 101 heard Friday evenings at 6:30 PM here on KPBX.

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  • On this week’s show, Dan Webster, Nathan Weinbender, and Mary Pat Treuthart will be discussing two films that feature characters facing situations that seem overwhelming. One is the title character of the film adaptation of Judy Blume’s novel, “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.” Another is the woman played by former “Seinfeld” co-star Julie Louis-Dreyfus in Nicole Holofcener’s “You Hurt My Feelings.”
  • “You Hurt My Feelings” examines whether honesty is always the best policy, Dan Webster says in his review.