Writer/director Kelly Fremon Craig follows up her dynamite directorial debut The Edge of Seventeen with Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret., another coming-of-age tale that beautifully conveys the painful process of trying to find one’s place in the world.
The contemporary setting of 2016’s The Edge of Seventeen allowed more colorful language and lustful inclinations for its characters, but Are You There God?, adapted from Judy Blume’s landmark 1970 novel, is comparatively much more wholesome. The stakes are small, the conflict is minimal, and the dramatic highs and lows are not as dynamic as they are in better films of the same genre. But a winning cast and a tender story that connotes empathy and understanding make this family dramedy easy to recommend.
We meet young Margaret Simon (Abby Ryder Fortson) as she comes home to New York City from summer camp before she begins sixth grade. Her mom, Barbara (Rachel McAdams), picks her up in a new car, but that’s not all that Margaret has missed during her time away. A promotion at work for her dad, Herb (Benny Safdie), means they’ll be moving across the Hudson River to New Jersey, much to the consternation of Herb’s mother, Sylvia (Kathy Bates). Thanks to assertive new neighbor Nancy (Elle Graham), Margaret starts to make friends soon after relocating and also develops a crush on lawn-mowing eighth-grader Moose (Aidan Wojtak-Hissong). But as the transitions associated with early adolescence begin to crop up, Margaret leans on faith and family for guidance.
Amari Price and Katherine Kupferer play Janie and Gretchen, respectively, who are members of a secret club that Nancy heads up and invites Margaret to be a part of when she moves into the neighborhood. The scenes revolving around their meetings generate some of the biggest laughs in Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret., as when the girls steal one of Margaret’s dad’s Playboy magazines and gawk at the models whose bodies they envy. Conversely, there are dispirited reactions to the male section of an anatomy book that one of the girls lifts from the school library. The film retains the early 1970s setting of the novel upon which it’s based and while the forthright discussions of puberty in the book were taboo upon its release, the girls’ mischievous inclinations are quaint by today’s standards.
The movie doesn’t quite have any knockout scenes of poignancy, but the moments that come closest are those where McAdams is able to carve out more emotional space for Barbara in the narrative. Taking a break from her job teaching art, she’s at something of a crossroads herself as she tries to fit in with the PTA moms and hone her skills as a homemaker. While cutting out fabric stars for the school gym’s ceiling, Barbara spots a chirping robin outside that sticks around long enough for her to start a canvas painting, only for it to get scared off by the sound of a doorbell. McAdams is terrific as a loving mother trying to power through her insecurities in hopes of harnessing her passions, all while being burdened with estranged parents and an overbearing mother-in-law. “It gets tiring trying so hard all the time, doesn’t it?” Barbara laments to Margaret as they lean on each other in a wonderful moment of mutual appreciation.
While Craig’s approach to this material is generally quite safe, I appreciate the way that she depicts Margaret’s religious journey and her earnest search for something greater. I wouldn’t describe this as a “faith-based” movie, which increasingly means preaching to the choir as opposed to trying to actually reach the unconverted, but it is a movie that values faith and takes it seriously. Margaret goes to temple, church services, and mass — she even goes to confession on her 12th birthday — but she can’t seem to exactly find her place in any of it. The pressure that Margaret feels from different members of her family to make a choice about what religion she is ultimately causes her to reject all of it, a sentiment to which I’m sure those in interfaith families can relate.
Whether someone is listening to us or not, films like Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. remind us that caring earthly voices deserve to be nurtured and amplified.
New movies coming this weekend
Debuting in theaters is Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, a superhero sequel starring Chris Pratt and Zoë Saldaña continuing the adventures of the titular gang of outlaws as they pursue a dangerous mission that could lead to the team dissolving if they fail.
Also coming to theaters is Love Again, a romantic drama starring Priyanka Chopra Jonas and Sam Heughan about a young woman who tries to ease the pain of her fiancé’s death by sending romantic texts to his old cell phone number and forms a connection with the man to whom the number has been reassigned.
Playing at Cinema Center is Showing Up, an art dramedy starring Michelle Williams and Hong Chau which tells the story of a struggling sculptor preparing to open a new show as she tries to work amidst the daily dramas of family and friends.
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