Director Kelly Fremon Craig said she wanted Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. to be equal parts documentary, memory and bildungsroman, or coming-of-age tale. The film, adapted from the 1970 Judy Blume novel of the same name, chronicles an academic year in the life of sixth-grader Margaret Simon (Abby Ryder Fortson) as she tackles everything from a big move to New Jersey to a religious reckoning and menstruation.
Fremon Craig isn’t a stranger to the coming-of-age genre; she wrote and directed 2016 dramedy The Edge of Seventeen. But tackling one of the most beloved pieces of middle grade literature was bound to be a difficult feat for anyone, due in part to the richness of the text.
A major conflict of the book is Margaret Simon grappling with the existence of God and her religious identity. She uses a year-long research project assigned by her teacher as a means of gathering information on religion. Simultaneously, she manages the Sisyphean task of wrestling with her body image and crushes for the first time.
Before the April 17 advanced screening at Columbia College Chicago, an ad played featuring women of all backgrounds reminiscing about their #MargaretMoments. A Margaret Moment can be anything from an embarrassing first period story to a mortifying first date. In an “I am Spartacus!” fashion, viewers are encouraged to envision themselves as Margaret Simon.
The universality of Margaret’s character is something that Fremon Craig said she wanted to capture in a roundtable interview on April 18.
“I think it's a credit to the book she [Judy Blume] wrote,” Fremon Craig said. “It transcends time, it transcends race. It just feels like it's the truth. And the truth remains the truth, no matter what year you're in.”
It’s not just Margaret’s character that feels so inclusive, but the film adaptation zooms out from the 11-year-old and adds detailed nuance to the lives of the vibrant side characters who influence her sixth-grade experience. Margaret’s mother Barbara (Rachel McAdams), struggles with her new status as a stay-at-home mother and her longtime estrangement from her Christian parents who disowned her after marrying Herb (Benny Safdie), a Jewish man. Margaret’s grandmother Sylvia (Kathy Bates) enters a new stage in her life, full of independence and blossoming romance.
Janie Loomis (Amari Alexis Price) is portrayed with all the grace pubescent Black characters are rarely given: In a masterful display of Fremon Craig’s attention to detail, Janie climbs onto the kitchen counter to prepare to have her hair washed and straightened with a hot comb before a classmate’s birthday party.
Checking into the documentary category, the film explores the complicated politics of middle school friendships and the tensions that develop within young girls as they approach and jump headfirst into puberty. The climax of the film explodes in a bang of jealousy, opposing family views and lies. Fremon Craig is adept at navigating the murky waters of that in-between phase of not-childhood-not-adolescence without ascribing blame to the young girls who make up the ensemble, like outwardly arrogant Nancy Wheeler (Elle Graham).
There are no filters or complex coloring to the scenes which makes the events of the film feel like it happened yesterday, rather than 53 years ago. For viewers whose mothers grew up in the era, it presents a glimpse into the eternally frustrating yet still relevant experience of being 11 and 12 years old.
“That's exactly why I wanted to set it in 1970. I wanted girls today to watch it and say to themselves, ‘Oh, my God, everything that I've gone through, my mom went through,’” Craig said. “Something about that is just really beautiful and connects us.”
Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. releases in theaters on April 28.