4 out of 5 stars

Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret is a deceptively thoughtful coming-of-age drama set in 1970s New Jersey. Based on but not welded to the iconic Judy Blume novel, the story still feels as fresh and pioneering as the day it was published in 1970.

Kelly Fremon Craig’s film opens with 11-year-old Margaret (Ant-Man’s Abby Ryder Fortson) coming home from summer camp to discover her family are moving to a New Jersey suburb, and her grandmother Sylvia (Kathy Bates) is less than amused about this. Unlike the novel, Sylvia’s on the cheekier side of the nagging granny cliché, and while Bates’ upmarket Jewish character is only in a few scenes her presence is huge.

Abby Ryder Fortson is a whirlwind of emotions and earnestness. She also looks like a genuine little girl, not just in how she’s styled, but in her nervousness around boys and her quiet intelligence around other girls. We learn about Margaret’s inner workings via her conversations with God, a diary-like dialogue between her and a deity she isn’t sure is there.

Margaret’s prepubescent relationship with her ever-changing world is mirrored by her nurturing mother Barbara (Rachel McAdams), who gave up a successful career as an art teacher to become a stay-at-home mum. Barbara struggles to adapt to this new way of life, full of PTA meetings and having to choose the right furniture. It’s refreshing to see the maternal figure afforded her own storyline and her own struggles. It’s almost unheard of that you care about the parents as much as the children in a coming-of-age story.

On her first day in the neighbourhood, Margaret makes friends with queen bee Nancy (Elle Graham), who hosts her own all-girls secret meetings club where she makes the other girls feel bad for their prepubescent bodies and inexperience with boys. Graham plays Nancy with just enough clueless energy that she isn’t a total villain, just a rich girl who thinks a little too highly of herself.

Fellow club members Gretchen (Katherine Mallen Kupferer) and Janie (Amari Price) get a little less time dedicated to their journeys. Nancy’s brother Evan (Landon S. Baxter) may be an annoyance to the girls, but his friend Moose (Aidan Wojtak-Hissong) awakens something in Margaret. While Margaret is making eyes at Moose, the rest of the sixth graders have their eyes on pretty jerk Philip Leroy (Zackary Brooks). Unlike many coming-of-age dramas, boys feel a very secondary focus for these girls.

The girls are so desperate to reach puberty first that they attempt to hurry the process along with exercises to grow their breasts. Margaret even prays to God that she can start her period. It’s hard not to feel loving compassion for these girls, even when they’re at their most frivolous. Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret is a fond portrayal of the silliness of being a little girl, desperate to grow up and skip puberty.

Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret is wonderfully refreshing in its frankness about the changing bodies of these girls. The talk of sanitary towels and bras never feels mean-spirited. The girls going to the drugstore to buy Teenage Softies sanitary pads is shown in excruciating detail, never choosing to use metaphors and allusions for the comfort of the audience. Kelly Fremon Craig’s writing and directing never shy away from the cruelty of being 11 and how the littlest things can feel like the end of the world.

Margaret’s coming-of-age journey isn’t just about her biology and friendship group. Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret also explores the title character’s relationship with religion and the aforementioned God. Her mother has staunchly Christian parents whilst her father grew up Jewish, and because of the divide it caused in their family they chose to not raise their daughter religious.

In the book, Margaret continues to denounce religion; in the film, she starts to question her beliefs. It leads to a heart-breaking conversation about generational trauma and the sacrifices women must make throughout their lives.

Craig understands the teenage girl better than most as she wrote and directed the comedy-drama The Edge of Seventeen (2016). She’s a master at the subtle female gaze, especially through the eyes of a young girl unsure what her feelings actually mean.

It’s hard to watch Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret and not be transported to a certain point in your own life. The cringemaking sex education class, the making fun of the person whose body changed first, and desperately wishing away your youth in the hopes that adulthood would magically fix everything. No matter your age, gender and sexuality, you’ll find a bit of yourself in Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.

USA | 2023 | 106 MINUTES | 1.85:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH HEBREW

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Cast & Crew

director: Kelly Fremon Craig.
writer: Kelly Fremon Craig (based on the novel by Judy Blume).
starring: Rachel McAdams, Abby Ryder Fortson, Ellie Graham, Benny Safdie & Kathy Bates.