I will never forget the late, great Roger Ebert’s review of the 2000 gem ALMOST FAMOUS where he said that he wanted to give the Cameron Crowe-directed, 1970s era gem a hug. I always loved that expression, and I also love a movie that casts its spell on you as if someone that you have not seen for a long time just gave you a warm hug to feel better. Had Mr. Ebert lived to see this loving adaptation of Judy Blume’s classic book ARE YOU THERE GOD? IT’S ME, MARGARET, also set around the same time period, he may have wanted to embrace this picture as well.
I was not ready for this movie to completely win me over with its charm. Even though I rarely watch trailers or look into the behind the scenes of most movies before I see them, this appeared to be marketed more on the religious aspects and geared more towards children, especially coming after the release from fellow LionsGate picture JESUS REVOLUTION from a few months ago where this preview was playing before the movie started. I was surprised that not only is this movie faithfully adapted and translated to the screen medium with complete professionalism from Blume’s source material, but it also feels like a movie out of producer James L. Brooks’ 80s era (TERMS OF ENDEARMENT, which he directed, is one of my favourite movies) that is really about growing up in such a relatable way for all ages and not just for the pre-teen girl protagonists of its story. It’s coming-of-age themes feels like it comes out of another era of going to the movies, and at its heart it’s about family in a wonderfully entertaining package that is for everyone, not just for the target demographic of its lead.
This is old-fashioned filmmaking through and through as it opens in 1970, when Margaret (Abby Ryder Fortson) is coming back from summer camp. Her parents Barbara and Herbert (Rachel McAdams and Benny Safdie) have news that they are moving from New York City to a smaller town in New Jersey, much to Margaret’s disappointment. Thankfully, when they all get there she fits in with some new friends who form a secret club. This is also the time where Margaret is starting to go through puberty as well as question her family’s origin and also where her future might take her.
It was refreshing to see time and patience taken on just watching characters develop, think through any conflicts that come up and the process of dealing with issues. The movie is wonderfully complex and yet feels so simple and elegant as it plays out. This isn’t just a movie about Margaret experiencing puberty but also the close relationship with her mom, a powerful force of nature on her own. Barbara grew up Christian and married a Jewish man, and both she and her husband decided not to place a religion on Margaret and let her decide her own path later in life. That we get to see a lot of conflict in the family and how they all work off of it (leading to a rather painful segment in the movie where all of the family comes together) is one of the strongest elements of the movie.
It’s bizarre to think that it took nearly 50 years for a film to reach the screen even with the subject matter. The is a book that I remember sneaking a peek at when I was a kid because I wanted to learn about what made girls tick. Hey, I was curious! It paid off though as I fondly remembered the humour out of all of the coming of age themes, many of which translate to anyone who ever grew up. We ALL went through puberty, we ALL had to grow up and change, and the movie is so positive and upbeat in how it handles its story. MARGARET is also just really funny and likeable with all of the details of the time and people who grew up or close to the era will absolutely relate; I burst out laughing in a scene where all the girls in Margaret’s class watch a 16mm projected movie on “changing bodies” or even the smaller details, like the shot of the location of a Playboy magazine that Margaret goes to get for her friends under her dad’s bed is perfect, because of course that’s exactly where it would be.
Speaking of Margaret, this movie wouldn’t work without the outstanding lead performance by Abby Ryder Fortson as Margaret, who is one of the very best child examples of acting-is-reacting I have seen in the movies. Margaret is a bit more quiet than her friends and is very curious in the world around her, and the movie gets a lot of mileage out of just watching her facial expressions and reactions throughout. You always know what she is thinking and feeling and it’s a huge thanks to the filmmakers to give her that time on screen. I have only seen Forston in an earlier ANT-MAN movie and remember her vaguely but this is a tremendous lead role that she carries throughout.
As her mom Barbara, Rachel McAdams truly does some of her best work of her career here. Barbara is a very complex mom who I can tell is open-minded, wants her daughter to find her own way but also be incredibly supportive at the same time, and all of that is present throughout. In one powerful scene we see her explain to Margaret on why she doesn’t speak to her parents anymore, and it’s a slow but tearful breakdown that shows her at the top of her game and is absolutely how my own mom told me some bad news to me years ago. It’s an incredible scene that is also one of Fortson’s best scenes in the movie as well (just her reaching out to her mom to hug her brought me to tears). Later, she has a final moment with Margaret that is so spirited and alive and exactly cements the power of her role as parent.
The supporting cast here also has some pretty incredible moments; Kathy Bates really surprises here as one of those “cool” grandmothers that make a great connection with Margaret, and you can see her character is working overtime to please Margaret, even in a sequence where she gets excited to take her to a Jewish temple. As Margaret’s friends, it’s a wonderful combination of younger girls all with their own personalities and voice and the spirited Nancy (Elle Graham) who first befriends Margaret is a highlight. And though he is more known as part of the UNCUT GEMS filmmaker team, Benny Safdie (who you may also recall had a small role in LICORICE PIZZA) is also strong here as Barbara’s Jewish husband.
The filmmaker is Kelly Fremon Craig, who I first noticed with her terrific debut feature THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN all the way back in 2016 and quickly noticed her attention to character and giving every person in every frame a voice. Like with this movie, it was also produced by Brooks and Craig also did the adaptation here and you can tell took great time and care over translating it to the screen, making the right cinematic changes where necessary. Even Judy Blume herself said this movie is better than the book, and that’s great praise indeed!
Everything about ARE YOU THERE GOD? IT’S ME, MARGARET is world class, from the earthy cinematography from Tim Ives that has the look and feel of 35mm down (even though it was filmed digitally), the production design right down to the suburban house staircases and dark-wood panelled basements, and even Hans Zimmer’s score which just hits the right notes when needed. Even coming from a faith-based background, MARGARET also works if you are religious or not, and it’s one of the best movies I have seen about the conflicts of not only different religion but also being raised without one, which is something I can absolutely relate to. I can tell that LionsGate, the film’s distributor, gave the film complete creative control to make the best movie possible and it’s all on screen.
Even coming from an older male film writer many years beyond the Margaret character, I of course understand the prime target audience for this movie. With that said, I really feel this movie is for everyone as we all grew up at some point and always looked ahead into adulthood. The themes here are completely universal and that it also gives its adult characters, especially Barbara, complete attention as well is just icing on the cake. And without giving spoilers, MARGARET finalizes on the most perfect three shots that I have seen in the movies all year. I wish I could talk about it in a review like this, but it’s something that completely floored me as an example of absolutely perfect filmmaking emphasizing on character and resolution and is a subtle but powerful reminder of just how far movies can take us. You will know it when you see it, and you’ll know why I wiped away tears of joy when it was over and the credits started rolling, showing a complete movie experience in such a bold and beautiful way. ARE YOU THERE GOD? IT’S ME, MARGARET is one of the best films I will see this year.
ARE YOU THERE GOD? IT’S ME, MARGARET is now playing in theatres.