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'Are You There God?' adaptation retains the warmth and wit of Judy Blume's classic

Abby Ryder Fortson plays 11-year-old Margaret Simon and Kathy Bates is her grandmother in<em> Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret.</em>
Dana Hawley
Abby Ryder Fortson plays 11-year-old Margaret Simon and Kathy Bates is her grandmother in Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret.

Given the recent uptick in book bans nationwide, it feels right that Judy Blumeshould be back so prominently in the conversation. Over the past several decades, the 85-year-old author has seen more than a few of her novels yanked from school library shelves, starting with her 1970 classic, Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret.

None of that kept the book, with its frank treatment of an adolescent girl's inner life, from becoming a huge bestseller and an enduring touchstone. And now, more than 50 years later, it's been terrifically adapted to the big screen by the writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig, with nearly all its warmth, humor and wry wisdom intact.

One of the best things about the movie is that it resists the temptation to update Blume's book to the present day, likely realizing that a version set in the era of social media would be a markedly different story. And so it's the '70s when young Margaret Simon, winningly played by Abby Ryder Fortson, returns home from summer camp and learns, to her horror, that she and her parents are leaving their cozily cluttered New York City apartment and moving to a house in suburban New Jersey.

It's a major upheaval for an 11-year-old, though Margaret is soon befriended by her new neighbor and fellow sixth grader, Nancy, played by Elle Graham. Nancy, a bossy know-it-all, wastes no time bringing Margaret into her secret girls' club, where she presses them to talk about whether they've gotten their periods and whether they've started wearing bras. Feeling the pressure, Margaret goes bra shopping with her mom, in a sweetly funny scene. Later, Nancy gives her and the other girls tips on how to increase their bust sizes.

To further speed along the process, Margaret begins praying every day and night, starting off each time with a nervous "Are you there God? It's me, Margaret." And so her anxieties about her body lead her into a deeper curiosity about her soul.

Unlike a lot of her friends, Margaret wasn't brought up in any religious tradition, for reasons the movie gradually makes clear: Her father, Herb, played by Benny Safdie, is Jewish, and her mother, Barbara, played by Rachel McAdams, is Christian. Their marriage caused a lot of family drama years earlier, and they've kept religion out of the house ever since. But tensions persist: While Margaret is very close to her Jewish grandmother, played by a scene-stealing Kathy Bates, she has yet to even meet her maternal grandparents, who cut off contact with her mom after she got married.

That long-standing rift sets the stage for some big emotional reckonings in the third act, which the movie plays for generous laughs but also real poignancy. As she showed in her enjoyable coming-of-age movie The Edge of Seventeen, director Fremon Craig has a gift for mining humor and drama from her characters in equal measure. She also has a terrific cast, including newcomer Fortson, who reveals Margaret's decency and sweetness, but also her capacity for thoughtlessness and cruelty.

But the movie's most memorable character is Margaret's mother, Barbara. For those of us who still remember and cherish McAdams' performance as the villainous Regina George in Mean Girls, there's something especially moving about seeing her here, playing the loving, protective mom to a young girl facing her own battle with peer pressure. But Barbara's own personal struggles — she's an artist who gave up a rewarding teaching career in New York to be a stay-at-home suburban mom — are no less dramatic than her daughter's. McAdams is simply luminous as a woman trying to strike a balance between sensible authority figure and boho free spirit.

One of the most radical things about Blume's book was its suggestion that kids could come to their own conclusions about faith, that religion wasn't something that should be foisted on them. The movie honors that conviction: Margaret doesn't join a church or synagogue, but she experiences her own kind of epiphany. She learns that puberty can hit at any time, but real maturity often comes later. She learns that everyone has their insecurities, and that everyone, from the unpopular kid in class to a queen bee like Nancy, deserves to be treated with kindness. Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret. doesn't pretend to have all the answers, but by the end, this awkward preteen has achieved her own state of grace.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Fresh Air, and a regular contributor to KPCC's FilmWeek. He previously served as chief film critic and editor of film reviews for Variety.

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