In his review of the new film “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret,” Daily Beast critic Fletcher Peters writes that the film “will appeal to any audience member, no matter their age, gender identity, or relationship to the book.”
I’m not sure that’s true. While the film is based on the seminal book of the same title by Judy Blume, in the 1970s the book was controversial for its honest depiction of religion and female puberty. Today the same story comes across as downright conservative.
After all, one of the dramatic themes driving the story, and something that was scandalous even in the 70s, was the tremendous, life-altering significance of being a young woman after getting her first period. The girls in Are You There God? ask each other constantly if they have gotten “it.” They write notes about “it,” they see cringe movies about “it” at school, they buy the proper supplies at the local drug store in anticipation of the moment “it” finally arrives.
The message is clear: girls are different from boys in a cellular, soulful, and metaphysical way. The difference is not slight, it is vast. It is life changing for them in ways puberty cannot be for boys.
Transgender women do not get periods. Despite makeup, dresses, and surgery, in an elemental way they can never be part of the sisterhood. This is the kind of argument one hears these days on Fox News, not MSNBC.
“Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” is a beautiful coming of age film. It takes a few liberties with the book, but the main themes of emerging puberty and questions about God are handled with grace and humor.
Ironically, this film about kids explores some very adult themes. Conservatives often complain about Hollywood, and with good reason, but this is a touching, wonderfully acted film that champions the golden rule, intellectual and spiritual curiosity, and the wonder and special mystery of being a woman. Boys are depicted as alien creatures—weirdly attractive, yes, but also loud, rude, and increasingly hairy.
The film is set in 1970. Margaret Simon (played by a fantastic Abby Ryder Fortson) and her parents move from New York City to New Jersey. Margaret is befriended by her new neighbor, Nancy (Elle Graham), who initiates her into a “secret society” with two other girls. There is talk of bras, boys, and, of course, the always looming question of when each girl will get “it.” Margaret’s mother is a fallen-away Christian and her father is Jewish, and the couple has opted to let their daughter decide her faith when she is of age. At 11, she claims she is “almost an adult,” and explores a synagogue, a black gospel choir, and a Catholic confessional. All these faiths are treated with respect, something that isn’t seen too often in today’s Hollywood.
The film is also stunningly accurate, not only about the time it depicts but also about the nature of young girls—who, as one reviewer put it, can be “casually cruel in the guise of honesty.” The furniture, schools, fashions and dialogue from the 1970s is exact, although writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig does let a few anachronistic phrases slip in. Kathy Bates is hilarious as Margaret’s brash grandmother Sylvia, but a real scene-stealer is Elle Graham as Nancy. Nancy is supposed to be a mean girl who forms cliques and makes fun of other students, but the mask comes off when “it” happens to her. Terrified and crying in a restaurant bathroom, she calls for her mother, who arrives and calmly handles the situation. It’s a raw and profound piece of acting.
The Daily Beast review noted “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” allows the audience to laugh because first kisses, first bras, and boys “are meant to be laughed at.” Yet while there is a lot of humor in the film (the girls do exercises to encourage their physical development, reciting, “I must, I must, I must increase my bust!”), the themes of the movie are of deep moral, religious, and even cosmic importance.
Margaret prays to God throughout the film, but God appears only to deliver one explicit request. Margaret has been gossiping to other students about Laura Danker (Isol Young), whose body has already matured. She stands almost a foot taller than the rest of the class and, according to rumors, kisses boys behind the school. Margaret takes the taunting too far, then, feeling real remorse, chases Laura down and begs for forgiveness. The two girls dance together at an outdoor school party, and then are joined by other girls who might not be in the cool clique.
Shortly after this redemptive act, “it” happens. In a scene of real emotional power, Margaret cries out to her mother Barbara (a wonderful Rachel McAdams), who then says: “Welcome to womanhood.” It’s a pivotal moment that boys and men can look on as I did, from the safe seat of a movie theater, but it’s something us guys will never experience or even fully understand. It’s between real girls, their friends, and God.