For quite a while, the relentless revamping of treasured children’s stories was the most annoying trend in contemporary filmmaking. No, Disney, we don’t need live action remakes for The Lion King, The Little Mermaid, Peter Pan, Pinocchio, and Moana, a movie that was released less than a decade ago. Who asked for Shawn Mendes crooning pop songs in a bonkers Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile adaptation? Don’t even get me started on Wednesday.
All this considered, it felt natural to be skeptical of the first big screen adaptation of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, Judy Blume’s seminal coming-of-age novel. Thankfully, it’s unlike any of these aforementioned retellings. This recreation joins Paddington in the canon of rare adaptations that are even better than their already stellar original stories.
This sounds unbelievable, considering Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret has been training young folks on puberty, religion, and family for over 50 years now. It’s a classic! You don’t get any better than that. But Blume herself has said that director Kelly Fremon Craig’s Hollywood adaptation is better than her source material, so I feel fine endorsing that as well.
Somehow, the movie manages to make good on a promise to stay faithful to the original story, while also bringing in charming new elements to brighten it up. This adaptation isn’t just for young teen girls in health classes—it’s witty and heartwarming enough to please every audience member, no matter their age, gender identity, or relationship with the book.
We meet sweet Margaret Simon (Abby Ryder Fortson) at a turning point in her life: Not only is she about to enter *gasp* puberty, but her parents have also decided to make a big move to New Jersey for the new school year. Margaret is pressed. Her whole life is in New York City! Her lovely (but overbearing) paternal grandma Silvia (Kathy Bates) lives there. She’s a metropolitan young lady. All the great culture is in New York. Alas, Margaret’s father Herb (Benny Safdie) got a new job in the suburbs, and her mother Barbara (Rachel McAdams) wants more space to pursue painting.
Though this movie, like the original novel, takes place in the 1970s, the story and overall design feel timeless. The Simons decorate their house in a way that feels true to the period, but, at the same time, could be ripped out of a design catalog from 2023—which simply means it’ll still be a relevant film for years to come.
Margaret doesn’t have an iPhone like middle schoolers do nowadays, but she makes new neighborhood friends just like any sixth-grader might—by accepting the first girl who knocks on her door as her new best friend. Nancy Wheeler (Elle Graham) invites Margaret to splash around in her sprinkler next door. She obliges, beginning the blissful (and yet, often strenuous) friendship between Margarent and Nancy.
Nancy’s quest for popularity, a boyfriend, and bigger breasts (of course the iconic “We must! We must! We must increase our bust!” makes the cut) bleeds into Margaret’s life, one of a few dilemmas we see Margaret facing. There’s also the issue of missing her grandmother, which is solved with a quick visit to New York. And then there’s the whole “God” thing, which is not as easily cracked. On her paternal side, Margaret is Jewish, while her mother’s estranged parents were Christian. Thus, her household elects not to celebrate any religious holidays—which brings Margaret dread every year, because what is she supposed to do in December, when most of her classmates celebrate Christmas or Hanukkah, or at least something!
Furious with her parents for the lack of presents and overall celebration, Margaret sets off to define her own religion. Much to the delight of Silvia, she requests to attend Temple. She attends a church service with the Wheelers, who are Christian. She tries confession in a Catholic church. Nothing comes out of this journey for answers. Margaret attempts to grapple with her faith in an essay for class, which is at once heartbreaking, soothing, and inspiring. If she can’t find the answers, it’s fine if similar youngsters (or older folks, too) struggle with their faith and spirituality in a similar way.
Though Margaret wrestles with such complex topics—puberty is no joke!—no second is without a wonderful sense of humor. When the girls of sixth grade are forced to sit through a presentation about sex, we cringe with them, but then we laugh when one sees a penis and shouts, “It looks like a thumb!” First kisses are gross and scary, and middle-school boys are grosser and scarier, but the film is smart enough to play around with the fact that both are meant to be laughed at. Margaret’s hunt to define her spirituality is full of dead ends and loneliness. And yet, it’s paired with some killer facial expressions and a joyous moment of glee for Silvia, whose overjoyed reaction to Margaret’s curiosity in Judaism feels ripped straight out of the grandma playbook in the most hilarious way.
Margaret owes a lot to its source material, but the film would be nothing without the impeccable casting decisions made for its lead stars. Bates, who only has a few scenes, is miraculous, and a reminder that everyone should give their grandma a call if they’re lucky enough to have the opportunity. McAdams brings grace and wit to the role of Barbara, who has her own PTA-mom subplot and struggles. All the child actors are phenomenal, but Fortson excels in a way that it’s hard to imagine any other young actress could’ve. She is a force to be reckoned with, and I will now forever hear the book’s title read in her voice.
With the smart middle-school humor of PEN15 and the emotional weight of Lady Bird, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret enters the tier of coming-of-age masterpieces. Judy Blume has a history of turning down Hollywood adaptations of her material—it’s good she’s been picky, because no other cast could’ve pulled off this feat. Even better: Another adaptation of her spectacular work is on the way. It’s what the Blume fans deserve.
Liked this review? Sign up to get our weekly See Skip newsletter every Tuesday and find out what new shows and movies are worth watching, and which aren’t.