Judy Blume’s Classic Novel Gets the Big Screen Treatment It Deserves
DIRECTOR: KELLY FREMON CRAIG/2023
In my decade of reviewing films, I’ve never been tempted to tell the story of my first period at my 11th birthday party. I’ve never shared about the time my mom embarrassed me at Kohl’s by holding up a training bra and what-felt-like-shouting, “I think it’s about time for one of these.” I’ve never mentioned that the first time I shaved (covertly with her BIC razor since I didn’t think I’d be allowed) I gashed my thumb—who knew you weren’t supposed to run your fingers over a sharp blade? I’ve also never talked about the times I cried myself to sleep because of the cliques, gossip, and feuds that hurt my feelings in ways I didn’t know possible. Though interaction with art demands consideration of your own life experiences, I’ve never referred to these instances because, well, for one, I’m already wondering if I’ll regret this overshare on the Internet. The other reason is that those moments have never felt relevant to any film I’ve ever written about—until now.
The adaptation of Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. follows Margaret Simon (Abby Ryder Fortson) as she enters the sixth grade in 1970. Just before she starts school, her parents Barbara (Rachel McAdams) and Herb (Benny Safdie) move her from their New York City apartment and doting grandmother Sylvia (Kathy Bates) to New Jersey. Her popular classmate Nancy Wheeler (Elle Graham, whose character shares a name with a popular girl from one of her previous credits, Stranger Things) inducts her into a secret club with Janie (Amari Price) and Gretchen (Katherine Kupferer); to join, you must wear a bra and provide weekly updates on your crushes and whether you’ve started your period. Her teacher Mr. Benedict (Echo Kellum, with a star-in-the-making vibe) assigns a year-long project exploring religion, which prompts Margaret to ask questions about her family history. During the year she navigates first kisses, first fights, and first days at school, her mother and grandmother are asking questions a lot like hers. Barbara is learning to be a stay-at-home mom for the first time, and Sylvia is searching for purpose now that her family has moved away. It’s their movie as much as it is Margaret’s, and just because they’ve figured out how to shave their legs doesn’t mean they have every answer for their lives.
Margaret is special in the way that the best coming-of-age movies are. Like The Sandlot, Margaret’s year is made up of comedic episodes about making friends and the awkwardness of not knowing what you don’t know. Like Stand by Me, she’s learning about the darkness she was shielded from in childhood. And like Inside Out and Little Women, there is appeal for both kids and adults. I suspect Margaret’s insecurities about boys, bras, and besties will feel relatable to Gens Z and Alpha if for no other reason than this movie’s depiction felt scarily accurate to my own experience in the mid-2000s. Margaret’s story is both universal in its milestones and specific in its setting, which is the perfect combination for one about transitioning from childhood to teenagedom.
Most coming-of-age stories are about teenagers becoming adults, like writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig’s 2017 feature The Edge of Seventeen. Movies with middle schoolers tend to be 1) family movies with secondary characters at that age (think The Incredibles), 2) films very much for grown-ups (like About a Boy, Big, Eighth Grade, and Moonrise Kingdom), or 3) juvenile content parents drag their feet on seeing. (Every time I catch a preview for a Diary of a Wimpy Kid movie, I thank the Lord I don’t have children.) There’s a place for Disney Channel features, especially since they’re more reliable at telling girls’ stories than Hollywood at large, but is it too much to ask for more nostalgic, sweet, and honest movies as well-made as this one? And if nothing else, can the everyday experience of menstruation not be limited to Carrie?
Unlike that ‘70s-set film, Margaret is steeped in the comedy of growing up, not the horror. Fortson proves holding her comedic own against Paul Rudd in the first two Ant-Man films was no fluke, and Bates is firing on as many cylinders as she did in Titanic. Should McAdams decide to tee up an Oscar campaign next spring, I’d be the first swing for her phenomenal and fully realized Barbara, who is never reduced to a mother-of-the-main-character role. Also refreshing: how this film handles religion. Because of her parents’ experiences, Margaret considers several belief systems. She asks thoughtful, empathetic questions, and though she critiques what she sees, she never reduces any worldview to a joke or stereotype. Her prayers aren’t just an excellent narrative device but an authentic one.
I am closer to Barbara’s age now than Margaret’s. That means when I woke up with a breakout on my face yesterday, I wasn’t surprised I started my period a few hours later while writing this review. I can shave my legs in under five minutes, though last month I nicked my knee badly enough I needed a Band-Aid. Like Barbara and Sylvia, I now know periods are the worst and that the best part of the day is coming home and taking off a bra. I’m twenty years removed from middle school, but I can still remember the night I prayed and asked God to resolve fights with friends that had me in tears, as well as the following morning when classmates gave the apologies I wanted without my asking. Any movie that makes me think of all those things in less than two hours is a special one indeed.