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The carefree dog days of a New Hampshire summer camp turn to the bustling verve of 1970s New York City before transitioning to a Norman Rockwell-esque suburban setting in Kelly Fremon Craig’s lovely adaptation of Judy Blume’s landmark young adult novel "Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret."
“Please don’t let New Jersey be too horrible,” Margaret Simon (a wonderful Abby Ryder Fortson) whispers to God as her family packs up their car and moves to the suburbs of New Jersey, the Big Apple’s skyscrapers and crowded sidewalks giving way to supermarket parking lots, yard sales, and kids running through sprinklers.
Almost as soon as they’ve pulled into their spacious new house, Margaret is invited by her new neighbor Nancy (Elle Graham, buoyant) to join her in running through those same dreamy sprinklers, initiating her into this new suburban way of life. Margaret is both overwhelmed and charmed by Nancy’s intense energy. She is overjoyed when Nancy asks her to join her secret club, along with fellow 6th graders Gretchen (Katherine Mallen Kupferer) and Janie (Amari Price). Through these friendships, Nancy will learn hard lessons about peer pressure, the pain of lies, and the power of being true to herself.
When the girls’ reveries are broken up by the shenanigans of Nancy’s brother Evan (Landon S. Baxter) and his friend Moose (Aidan Wojtak-Hissong), the camera cuts to Margaret’s POV as she inspects Moose’s armpit hair, a moment that had me thinking of Karen Maine’s equally exquisite coming-of-age film “Yes, God, Yes.” This is Margaret’s first blush at a crush, and as she holds her breath, we know her brain will be fixated on Moose for the rest of the film, though it might take her that long to do anything about it.
All the girls in the club are starting to obsess over boys. Mainly Philip Leroy (Zackary Brooks), a pretty boy who’s already proving to be quite the jerk, though the girls haven’t enough experience yet to realize it. At school and in their club meetings, the girls gossip about other students, particularly Laura Danker (Isol Young), whose already matured body is leading the way into adolescence. As they wait to see who will get their period first, they attempt to hurry the process of puberty along by getting training bras and reciting, “I must, I must, I must increase my bust.” Craig films these scenes with such loving compassion for the girls, never painting them as silly even when they’re at their silliest. But also never shying away from how casually cruel—in the guise of honesty—they can be.
But Margaret’s coming-of-age journey is not just that of a biological manner. After writing that she does not like “religious holidays” in a get-to-know-me paper, her teacher assigns Margaret to research religion for a year-long class assignment. Margaret has no religion as her parents Barbara (Rachel McAdams, luminous) and Herb (Benny Safdie), want her to choose her own when she grows up, much to the chagrin of Herb’s mother, Sylvia (Kathy Bates, delightful).
It’s here the film departs the most from the source material. While in Blume’s book, Margaret tells her friends why she has no religion, in the film, she’s unsure and asks her mother. In a completely heart-wrenching sequence, Barbara explains to her daughter that as “devout Christians,” her parents didn’t want a Jewish son-in-law, so if she married Herb, she would no longer be their daughter.
By giving this speech to Barbara, Craig teases out on a much larger scale the theme of how the choices of one’s parents can affect their children long into adulthood. Although it’s somewhat present in Blume’s writing, the book’s focus is so laser-pointed on Margaret’s experience that her parents are almost blank canvases. However, through Craig’s adaptation, Barbara becomes just as fleshed out as Margaret herself.
Details from the book, like how Barbara likes to paint, are writ large, with her now leaving behind a career as an art teacher in this move to the suburbs. As Margaret adjusts to life at a new school, so does Barbara. Less fulfilled with the burden of buying a new living room set for their house or joining a million PTA committees than she thought she would be, Barbara surrounds herself with her paintings, yearning to find some semblance of artistic inspiration in this new life.
In the hands of McAdams, one of her generation's most emotionally charged performers, Barbara becomes more than just a stereotypical overworked mom. Her warmth radiates throughout the film, as she must be both a safe harbor for Margaret’s ever-changing moods and also a ship on her own rocky journey toward self-actualization. McAdams is so mesmerizing in this role that she almost overpowers Margaret’s story and, in doing so, shines a light on the film’s one fault.
In creating a larger part for Barbara, Craig’s film is not just a coming-of-age story but also a deeper examination of the sacrifices, trauma, and safety that women can find while building their own families. Yet, due to uneven scripting or editing, her internal journey is not as seamlessly integrated with Margaret’s as it could be. Although Barbara keeps much of her internal struggles to herself, the film still left me wishing we knew how Margaret felt about Barbara’s attempted reconciliation with her parents or how Barbara felt about Margaret’s coming puberty.
Despite this slight hiccup, Craig’s spin on Blume’s classic is just as exhilarating as her debut film “The Edge of Seventeen.” Her deep respect for the foibles of girldom and her emotionally intelligent exploration of prickly family dynamics make her a perfect match for the material and elevates “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.” far above most modern films that attempt to tackle similar material.
Fortson is fantastic as the iconic Margaret, channeling her conflicting moods with aplomb. As are the other girls, their friend chemistry is reminiscent of that crafted by the cast of the 1995 classic “Now & Then.” But ultimately, this film belongs to McAdams, whose incandescent performance should be remembered not just as end-of-the-year lists start to roll in but also as perhaps her most accomplished performance yet.
Available in theaters on April 28th.
Abby Ryder Fortson as Margaret Simon
Rachel McAdams as Barbara Simon
Kathy Bates as Sylvia Simon
Benny Safdie as Herbert Simon
Wilbur Fitzgerald as Morris Binamin
Elle Graham as Nancy Wheeler
Ethan McDowell as Mr. Wheeler
Mia Dillon as Mary Hutchins
JeCobi Swain as Freddy Barnett
Gary Houston as Paul Hutchins
Aidan Wojtak-Hissong as Moose Freed
Sloane Warren as Mrs. Fisher