It’s hard to believe that the new big-screen adaptation of the classic Judy Blume novel “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.” made only $6.8 million at the domestic box office this past weekend. The theater where I saw the movie was more crowded than usual, and the audience clearly liked it to the point where there was applause at the end. I know that the film’s female-centric subject matter can be off-putting to male audiences, but this movie didn’t make a fifth of what “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” made in its fifth weekend. The blockbuster filled with eye candy was always going to steamroll this relatively quiet effort, but I would like to see this movie do better because it is the superior film.
Abby Ryder Fortson stars (and nuts to any advertising that says that Rachel McAdams is the star) as Margaret Simon, a sixth-grader in the 1970’s. Her world is turned upside-down when her parents (McAdams and Benny Safdie) announce that the family is moving from New York City to the New Jersey suburbs. Fortunately, it’s easy for Margaret to make friends with attention-crazy neighbor Nancy (Elle Graham) and her clique that also includes Gretchen (Katherine Kupferer) and Janie (Amari Price). Unfortunately, that’s about the only thing that’s easy for Margaret, because sixth grade is the year when things really start to get dramatic for preteens.
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Margaret does her best to navigate this new world of social and biological challenges. She thinks she can cruise through it with the help of her friends, and they help to a degree, but since they’re all equally confused, they’re only so much help to one another. She’s also thrown a curve in the form of spiritual challenges. She recognizes a need to pray to a higher power, but is unsure about what role religion should play in her life. Her parents have a gripe with organized religion due to some disturbing family history, but she considers Judaism with her grandmother (Kathy Bates), Protestantism with Nancy, and even Catholicism after she sees her classmate Laura (Isol Young) go to confession. By the way, this movie (though I suppose the book did it first) could have gone the easy route of turning the imposing, rapidly-developing Laura into a bully, but it’s subversive and intelligent enough to force Margaret to confront the realization that she and her friends are the ones doing the bullying.
The movie moves along at a pretty good clip, getting in a lot of milestones both on the calendar and in life. In fact, sometimes it moves a little too fast, like it’s skipping some things. I feel like there’s a scene missing where there’s a falling-out with the group of friends, as evidenced by a scene where Margaret and Janie have fun at a dance while Nancy can only watch from afar with an inattentive Gretchen. Also, I could tell I was supposed to like the girls’ nervous teacher (Echo Kellum), and Margaret goes out of her way to compliment him at the end of the school year, but based on what I’d seen of the character, it felt unearned. Maybe a scene was cut, or maybe something didn’t make it from page to screen, but the guy never struck me as a particularly good teacher.
I know I’m skipping over many story points crucial to “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.” including the well-known, potentially-uncomfortable women’s health elements. To be clear, these elements are prominently in the movie and usually handled with more sensitivity than I could possibly do justice. But the movie is so much more than that. It’s thoughtful and touching and very, very funny, especially when Kathy Bates is involved. It contains tremendous performances, especially by Abby Ryder Fortson and Rachel McAdams. Most importantly, it’s the best thing playing in theaters right now and it could use a boost in ticket sales.
“Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” is rated PG-13 for thematic material involving sexual education and some suggestive material. Its running time is 106 minutes.
Robert R. Garver is a graduate of the Cinema Studies program at New York University. His weekly movie reviews have been published since 2006.