Are You There God It's Me Margaret

Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret? is a fantastic coming-of-age film

4 out of 5 stars

For a work of art to be able to speak to young people while also evoking in an older audience an emotionally wrought moment in adolescence is particularly challenging. It requires a delicate touch to address pre-teens. You run the risk of talking down to them or assuming they are overtly precocious. In adapting Judy Bloom’s essential young adult text, Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret?, director and screenwriter Kelly Fremon Craig succeeds. 

Set in 1970, 11-year-old Margaret returns home from summer camp on the precipice of puberty to find out her parents want to move her out of the heart of New York City into the New Jersey suburbs. Resistant at first, Margaret soon acclimates to her new life. She joins a new friend group, develops her first crush and eagerly awaits her first period. Though Margaret has frequent conversations with God, she has yet to choose a religion, and over her first year in a new house, state and school, she also searches for a spiritual anchor. 

Sensitively treating Margaret’s problems as worthy of respect, the film doesn’t undercut her struggles. As she comes into her own as a person, she reckons with a rapidly changing world and her rapidly (though seemingly not rapid enough by her standards) changing body. What does it mean to be a woman? What does it mean to be a good person? A friend? A daughter? These are all questions weighing on Margaret’s soul. She wants to do good by herself and others, but what road to take isn’t always straightforward. 

Part of Margaret’s pre-teen understanding of the world involves facing the idea that adults don’t always have the answers. Her mother, Barbara (Rachel McAdams), in particular, similarly struggles with her identity in this new environment. Though an art teacher in the city, she’s a stay-at-home mom in the suburbs. She uses it as an opportunity to be more present in her daughter’s life and more active in the PTA. Yet, despite her unbridled enthusiasm and unwavering smile, she struggles with basic tasks like furnishing their living room.

Barbara’s struggles aren’t pointed or tortured, but they’re palpable. We learn about her life, particularly being estranged from her religious parents, who disapproved of her marriage to Herbert because he was a Jew. She’s uniformly a loving person, almost to the point of parody; the film takes care to be adoring and gently funny, such as when Barbara holds open a door for an endless stream of people. Unflinching, she acts as a de facto doorman, as her daughter lovingly admires her from afar as the best person she knows. The film never loses sight of the fact that it’s Margaret’s journey. The adults are fleshed out and honest because the writing doesn’t treat them as props in their protagonist’s life but as loving embodiments of the world as a complicated place. 

The spiritual struggle at the heart of Margaret’s experience is never rooted in a battle of good versus evil but in a selection of well-intended do-gooders trying their best. Their best is sometimes not enough, but Margaret’s upbringing, which stresses self-discovery and autonomy, positions Margaret so that she’s conscious and self-aware that she has power over her destiny. If Margaret has intense anxiety over puberty, it’s because it’s something beyond her control. It doesn’t matter how prepared or decisive you are — life is filled with surprises.

Kelly Fremon Craig’s direction is warm and inviting. Her work with actors is embodied and refreshing. Abby Ryder Fortson, who appears in the Ant-Man series as Cassie, displays Margaret’s intensity and humour with careful naturalism. She stands against veteran actors like McAdams, Ben Safdie and Kathy Bates. All the performances contribute to an atmosphere of effortless charm, a lived-in environment founded on the values of love and acceptance. The 1970s period recreation feels so lived-in, crowded with artifacts and period-specific details. It never feels tacky or cheap but considered and attentive. It’s one of the freshest recreations (of many) of the era in recent film and TV history. 

Whether or not you’re familiar with Bloom’s text, Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret? is a beautiful and engaging coming of age movie. It captures the anxieties of puberty and the grander questions about what it means to live a good life. Excuse the cliché, but it’ll often make you laugh and cry within the same scene. Wholesome as it may be, the movie doesn’t shy away from the cruelties and horrors of youth either: the looming allure of sex, the terror of bodies changing and the pointed bullying children are capable of. Effortlessly entertaining, Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret? will likely resonate for years to come. ■

Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret? (directed by Kelly Fremon Craig)

Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret? opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, April 28.

For our latest in film and TV, please visit the Film & TV section.