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Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret.: The Charming Coming-of-Age Film of 2023 You Didn’t Know Existed

Nicolas Chang gives us another stunning Nic’s Flix film review! Join him as he details this Kelly Fremon Craig film, based on the Judy Blume novel.


Adolescence is never an easy time. Not only is puberty where your body physically matures into adulthood, but it’s also where you become aware of your world and begin to find your place in it. It’s hard to navigate new angles as coming-of-age narratives become increasingly common. However, the charm behind them is their familiarity and relatability. Such stories offer an emotional catharsis to young viewers struggling with their personal hardships as they enter new chapters of their lives, and sometimes, that can mean a lot more than the flaws of these narratives.


Enter Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret. Released in 1970, Judy Blume’s beloved novel explored a pre-teen girl’s journey through early adolescence and the anxieties that came with it, delving into menstruation, friendships, religion, and girlhood. However, Judy looked into these topics sensitively, allowing for greater character empathy. Despite this, it never adapted to the big screen for years due to Judy’s refusal to let studios purchase the film rights. When Judy finally changed her mind, she trusted The Edge of Seventeen director Kelly Fremon Craig to bring justice to her source material, and the result is as satisfying as it is emotionally resonating and relatable.


Set in 1970, eleven-year-old Margaret Simon (Abby Ryder Fortson) returns from summer camp to find that her Christian mother, Barbara (Rachel McAdams), and Jewish father, Herb (Benny Safdie), are moving from their New York apartment to a New Jersey suburb due to Herb’s recent promotion. This understandably upsets Margaret, given she’ll be moving away from her friends and paternal grandmother, Sylvia (Kathy Bates). To navigate this drastic change in her life, she privately communicates her thoughts, hopes and fears to God while trying to fit in by navigating friendships, boys, societal expectations, religion, and early-adolescent anxieties, which involve scenarios like purchasing her first bra or awaiting her first menstruation.


Whereas film adaptations attempt to update their source material to get along with the times, Kelly retains the time and setting of Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret., where the presence of early-1970s hairstyles, costumes, suburban houses, and landline telephones evoke nostalgic environments. Even with its clean, digital appearance, Steven Saklad’s retro production design successfully achieves authenticity with colourful palettes and razor-sharp detailed sets that recreate the 1970s and ensure its navigation of female adolescence never feels dated.


Despite how society has evolved, growing up into womanhood continues to be a struggle for billions. Kelly Fremon Craig’s screenplay remains firmly faithful to Judy’s source material, successfully translating its thought-provoking depths without relying on contrived plot devices or out-of-the-blue moments to manipulate emotions. Its narrative prioritises characters to drive its events, and the humour integrates seamlessly into Kelly’s clever script, allowing the awkward scenarios to feel realistic.


However, Kelly’s screenplay succeeds in utilising the freeing medium of film to explore other character perspectives, which Judy’s first-person narrative couldn’t get past. While Margaret remains the heart and focus of the narrative, which is consistently hers’, Kelly devotes some time to Barbara’s subplot. She was always a lovely character in Judy’s novel, who never imposed her religion on Margaret, allowed her to be independent, and always listened to her. However, Judy rarely explored her perspective, reminiscent of how kids remained oblivious to their parents’ adult struggles. Here, Kelly expands on Barbara’s subplot, who is dealing with maternal guilt, the lingering trauma of being disowned by her conservative Christian parents due to her interfaith marriage, and the internal conflict she faces in attempting contact with them. When she discloses to Margaret her difficult relationship with her parents, it’s a heartfelt moment that allows greater nuance in its exploration of religion. By fleshing out the adult characters, Kelly recontextualises the events of the source material and adds greater depth to them. The care put into these characters is undeniable.


In addition, Kelly Fremon Craig directs with significant ease and charm, making the film a strong sophomore effort. She embraces the familiarities of coming-of-age tropes, cleverly utilising them for its more emotionally sensitive moments. At the same time, its low-stakes nature enables the charm to stand out further, with Kelly effortlessly directing her performers. Abby Ryder Fortson’s breakthrough performance as Margaret is sensational, with the other child actors providing strong, convincing performances. Kathy Bates is giddy and enthusiastic with her material without feeling over-the-top, and her screen presence becomes endearing. However, it’s Rachel Adams's show-stopping performance that helps Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret. become heartfelt and emotionally raw. She captures the complexity of her character and succeeds so largely that you feel for her. When she feels she has disappointed her daughter, your heart breaks for her. It’s a stunningly brilliant performance bound to steal attention during this year’s awards season.


Despite the consistent brilliance, Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret. does miss out on opportunities to expand its nuances further. Although it establishes the relationship between Margaret and her teacher, Mr. Benedict (Echo Kellum), who encourages her to explore religion as her research project and becomes a role model, this aspect lacks focus and feels underdeveloped. Even though it affords more screen time for the adult characters, Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret. doesn’t reach out to all of them, and Herb Simon is an unfortunate example. While it’s an understandable decision in retrospect, it still means Benny Safdie has little material, making him an underused presence.


Even then, Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret. matters. By retaining its early-70s setting but still exploring relatable depths of puberty, religion, and self-growth, it proves the timelessness of its themes. It feels like the sincere coming-of-age film we rarely see in today’s climate, playing its familiarities to its strengths to ensure Judy Blume’s beloved source material reaches a modern audience while fleshing out its other characters so that it has something for everyone. It’s a relatable coming-of-age film full of heart, and that’s what makes Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret. so important.


Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret. is currently available to rent and buy on Australian VOD services.


Rating: 8/10.


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