It’s been more than 50 years since the publication of Judy Blume’s seminal coming-of-age novel, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. The book was loved by its young readers for its humour and cosy relatability; but it was doing something radical, too: exposing the damper, more shameful realities of being a tween for what they really were – nothing to be ashamed of at all. Periods, sex, death, bullying: these are things that happen, Blume’s books gently warned – but they can be managed, and here are some examples of how.
Now, the novel that Blume long prevented from being made into a film has finally received the big-screen treatment. The result, thank goodness, is lovely: tender, funny, at points very moving, and full of precise and careful performances. It helps that the book’s heroine, 11-year-old Margaret, is played with endearing reserve and self-doubt by Abby Ryder Fortson. When we meet Margaret, she’s back in New York City after a fun-packed summer spent at camp. Her doting grandmother (Kathy Bates with statement hair) immediately blabs the news that Margaret’s parents are waiting to break: the family are moving to New Jersey. Margaret’s father (Benny Safdie) has been promoted, so they can finally afford a house with a big lawn on a nice street. Margaret’s mother (Rachel McAdams) will be able to quit her job and become a housewife. It’s eerily like the American dream, and almost as though the film has begun at the end.
Margaret has her doubts about the family’s good fortunes. But within moments of arriving in the dreaded ‘burbs, she is adopted by local queen bee Nancy (Elle Graham), who looks and talks like bad news. Still, one friend is better than no friends, and soon Margaret finds her place in Nancy’s little gang. Together, the four girls do girl stuff: talk about boys they fancy (though it’s far from clear any of them fancy boys yet), bitch about other girls, obsess over when they’ll get their periods, compare bra sizes and do exercises to make their boobs bigger (“I must, I must, I must increase my bust!”).
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Margaret must also find her feet at her new school, where her sixth-grade teacher (an off-puttingly saccharine Echo Kellum) encourages her to do a class project on religion. This turns out to be more destabilising than he might have hoped, as Margaret soon starts asking questions about why she’s been raised with no religion, despite her father being from a Jewish family and her mother from a Christian one. Still, in the process of learning about her family’s past, she ends up going to temple with her lonely grandmother, who shows her off to everyone she sees, like a prize-winning vegetable.
There are male characters in the film, but really it’s about women, and little women becoming women. This one-sidedness can be a drag – Margaret has a love interest of sorts, but he doesn’t make much of an impression; and her father never gets much in the way of a personality. Safdie (who, with his brother, directed the film Uncut Gems) has such an ironic, distant affect that his presence onscreen feels a little weird. Other questionable choices are made, too. The girls in Margaret’s class make fun of one of the pupils, for no other obvious reason than that he’s fat and not desperately attractive. You wait for the poor guy to have his redemptive arc, and prove the mean girls wrong – but he never gets it. At times, too, the cotton-candy girliness of the story can become suffocating. Were 11-year-olds in the 1970s really so utterly obsessed with menstruation?
Still, the film has such a golden heart it’s hard to stay cross with it for long. Kelly Fremon Craig, its screenwriter and director, has drawn out the timelessness of Blume’s tale, as well as its essential goodness. And McAdams, who I’d happily watch hanging her washing, suffuses the whole thing with folksy sweetness. Mostly, she’s just putting in shifts as a very good and empathetic mother, but there are moments of real emotion, too. A scene in which she haltingly explains to her daughter why she and her own mother don’t speak to each other any more is wrenching.
The film is also a reminder of how rarely cinema delves into the painful and exhilarating years between childhood and adulthood. Girls today may have far more access to information than they did when Blume’s book came out, but they’re still essentially going through the same thing: riding the helter-skelter of their changing bodies, loving and hating and needing their parents, finding out who they are and dreaming of who they could be.
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