Review: ‘Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.’ (ever-impending adulthood)

A near-perfect adaptation.

Returning home to New York City after summer camp, Margaret Simon (Abby Ryder Fortson) discovers her family is moving… to New Jersey, away from her beloved grandmother Sylvia (Kathy Bates). The year is 1970, and with Margaret’s dad Herb (Benny Safdie) taking a new better-paying job, her mom Barbara (Rachel McAdams) can be finally be an at-home mom. Even before starting their sixth grade year, near-neighbor and local gossip Nancy Wheeler (Elle Graham) recruits Margaret into a secret club charting their progress into womanhood. With new friends, new interests, and new revelations about her family, one girl will learn there’s some things you can’t rush, some things you can’t fix, and reaching out to support others in need is always a good thing.

One of “the most challenged and banned books in America” finally makes its way to the big screen half a century after its original publication, persecuted not only for demystifying and normalizing puberty for young women but challenging the status quo on matters of personal faith. Writer/director Kelly Fremon Craig helmed the project acquired by Gracie Films (yes, that “Shh!” logo at the end of “The Simpsons”) adapted from the classic “taboo-trampling” novel written by Judy Blume, a book that’s never been out of print since publication. In a modern era where women’s rights to education, body autonomy, and religious freedom are inexplicably still being debated by world governments, could there be a timelier story needing to be told to girls on the cusp of their womanhood?

Abby Ryder Fortson becomes Margaret in mind, body, and spirit, an example of perfect casting and an exemplary performance by a young actress. Too often, such coming of age films — here’s looking at you, Diary of a Wimpy Kid — are stocked with name adult actors trying to make bad child actors look better, or worse hampering the material with unnecessary added silliness. Both Kathy Bates and Rachel McAdams enhance Fortson’s performance, believably straddling three generations of intelligent women. This opens the floodgates to make the most ridiculous moments feel genuine and dire moments appropriately impactful. If there was ever a shoo-in for a Best Adapted Screenplay come awards time, this is most definitely it, all served up with a huge slice of suburban 1970s nostalgia.

You can’t talk about Margaret without addressing the 800-pound supreme being in the room: God Almighty, making a rare personal appearance in the title. Prayer is an integral part of Margaret’s internal monologue, presented in all its nuance and glory. Born into a family from two distinct religious backgrounds, the title character debates with herself over personal beliefs as much as she tries to find evidence of divinity in a church, temple, or confessional. In a pivotal scene, she appears to absolve herself from her version of The Invisible Man In the Sky, if only temporarily. It’s the same question of faith any mortal might consider regardless of upbringing, and Margaret learns early on what many cultures never do even after a lifetime of evidence: memento mori, zealots.

Margaret isn’t merely a coming-of-age story; it’s the coming-of-age story, highlighting puberty as the first of a lifetime of opportunities to reinvent oneself. In the rush to grow up too fast, grown-ups know all too well “adulting” makes nothing easier. Perhaps this is why grandmothers and granddaughters often see eye-to-eye when mothers and daughters can’t, with enough time having passed to understand that. For all the differences between generations, people are more alike than different… especially in the similarities no one wants to admit.

Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. is rated PG-13 for thematic material involving sexual education, some suggestive material, and two minutes alone with Philip Leroy.

Four skull recommendation out of four

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