Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. offers a witty adaptation of Judy Blume’s beloved teen novel

Director Kelly Fremon Craig proves a good match for Blume’s empathetic writing in her portrayal of Margaret, an 11-year-old girl navigating the obscure rules that govern puberty and organised religion.

Kathy Bates and Abby Ryder Fortson in Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.
Kathy Bates and Abby Ryder Fortson in Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.Courtesy of Lionsgate

It is the summer before sixth grade and 11-year-old Margaret Simon (Abby Ryder Fortson) is in a neighbour’s garden, parading through sprinkler spray in a borrowed bikini. Back at home, a collection of stuffed animals furnishes her bed. Margaret’s parents, Barbara (Rachel McAdams) and Herb (Benny Safdie), have recently traded in the family’s bohemian apartment in New York for a life of suburban bliss in New Jersey circa 1970.

It is against this backdrop that Margaret must navigate a new set of social rules, as well as the indignities of her changing body, if she is to survive the trenches of adolescence. The daughter of a Christian mother and a Jewish father, but raised without a faith to call her own, Margaret begins to pursue her own relationship with God, flirting with religion and exploring her spirituality. 

More than 50 years after it was published, writer and director Kelly Fremon Craig wittily adapts Judy Blume’s beloved novel of the same name, which has been challenged and even banned because of its candid discussion of puberty. Fremon Craig, who directed the underrated teen movie The Edge of Seventeen (2016), marries a natural comic instinct with deep sensitivity towards the loneliness of growing up.

She’s a good match for the empathetic, no-nonsense Blume, though Fremon Craig’s approach is softer, and a touch more sanitised. Rather like TV adverts for sanitary towels, with their blue liquid and smiling women dressed in tennis whites, the graphic realities of periods, for example, are bloodlessly alluded to rather than rudely discovered.

The film is less squeamish when it comes to depicting Margaret’s earnest ambivalence about organised religion, which she discovers to be a minefield of confusing rules and regulations.

She visits a synagogue with her conspiratorial paternal grandmother Sylvia (Kathy Bates, fabulously decked out in costume jewellery and velvet), experiences a gospel service in a Black church and tests out Catholic confession. No dogma brings her the spiritual guidance she craves.

Cleverly, Fremon Craig draws a parallel between the restrictions and double standards of both religion and womanhood, as well as the herd mentality that appears to govern both. At her new school, Margaret falls in with Nancy Wheeler (Elle Graham, a gifted comic), who speaks about boys and bras with brattish confidence. She invites Margaret to a vigilantly regulated secret club, which prohibits her from wearing socks with her penny loafers (Margaret’s mother winces in anticipation of her daughter’s blistered feet).

McAdams especially is a joy to watch as the hippyish Barbara, an art teacher-turned-housewife whose journey of self-determination mirrors her daughter’s. Her particular mix of breezy and conflicted feels in tune with the overall mood of this film, which has a surprising ability to undercut its own cuteness. 

► Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. is in UK cinemas from 19 May.