It’s shocking, given the cultural impact of Judy Blume’s young adult novel Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, that it’s taken more than four decades for the book to be adapted into a film. But that film is finally here, courtesy of writer/director Kelly Fremon Craig, and, for the most part, it’s a rousing success.
Fremon Craig makes some brilliant decisions in bringing the film to the screen, and the performances from the cast are all stellar, including the eponymous Margaret (Abby Ryder Fortson), with some of the younger cast, in particular, popping off the screen as stars of tomorrow. But not all of the changes to the novel work, or at least they ask more questions than they thoroughly explore.
Adaptation Pros and Cons
The most significant narrative change from book to screen is the addition of a subplot centering on Margaret’s mother, Barbara (an always fantastic Rachel McAdams), who is struggling with the inciting move from New York City to suburban New Jersey just as much as her daughter. Barbara taught art and spent time painting in New York, but throws herself into just about every PTA committee she can after moving to New Jersey in an attempt to fit into the new community. As expected, that transition isn’t easy, and McAdams’s nuanced performance makes the few scenes dedicated to this plot work remarkably well.
A more cosmetic than meaningful change is the racebending of characters who are assumed to be white in the novel. Margaret’s teacher Mr. Benedict (Echo Kellum), and Janie (Amari Alexis Price), one of her three best friends in the film, are black. But the farthest the film ever goes into addressing that is by including a scene of Margaret at a black church with Janie, clapping and dancing along with the rest of the congregation to lively gospel music and saying that it put her in a good mood in voiceover.
There are no conversations on the impacts of the civil rights movement and no signs of racism in this predominantly white suburb. These choices might not be noticeable if the film moved the novel’s period up to the 2020s, but the production design sets it firmly in the 1970s.
In theory, changing white characters into characters of color when adapting a book to the screen opens up new opportunities to explore the novel’s themes. But instead of exploring the different ways that young black girls are treated, or the various ways that parents in a predominantly white suburb in the 1970s might react to a young black man teaching their children, the film adaptation of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret is content to leave the change merely a cosmetic one.
The casting questions don’t end with the inclusion of characters of color who are given no more narrative weight or interest than their white counterparts, though. One of the most important white characters in the film is glaringly miscast as well. Margaret’s beloved Jewish grandmother Sylvia is played by Kathy Bates.
Bates (unsurprisingly) gives a lovely performance and has marvelous familial chemistry with Fortson, but she is not Jewish. Of course, this kind of ethnicity bending is and has been common for years in Hollywood, but on the heels of last year’s Armageddon Time and The Fabelmans, which both portray quintessentially Jewish stories (based on real Jewish families) but are cast with non-Jews, Bates’ casting here feels more noticeable.
Her casting is frankly jarring given the casting of the Jewish Benny Safdie as Herb, Margaret’s father and Sylvia’s son, and his styling in the film that marks him as ethnically Jewish. Extratextually it’s also worth noting that McAdams played an Orthodox Jew in Disobedience seven years ago and is specifically cast as a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant here.
While the film raises questions, and perhaps even frustrations, intellectually, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret succeeds where it matters most for a coming-of-age movie: emotion. Fremon Craig’s script expertly turns inner monologue exposition into powerful scenes of conversation between mother and daughter while ensuring the audience spends enough time with Margaret and her friends simply having fun and being tween girls.
The friend group, rounded out by Nancy (Elle Graham) and Gretchen (Katherine Kupferer), are all brought to life by the actors who turn even the most mundane and fleeting scenes into opportunities for character development through their performances. To the actors’ and Fremon Craig’s credit, these girls are all lovable, even at their most complicated and childishly cruel.
But it’s not just the relationships between the girls that make the film so impactful. The familial relationships are also given real weight here. We can tell that these relationships extend far beyond the story we’re seeing play out over a year due to the fantastic chemistry between the core four family members.
A Classic Adaptation
Fremon Craig’s adaptation of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret is, despite its issues, an excellent movie and an overwhelmingly successful adaptation of a classic novel. Of course, there’s no way to know whether the film will have the same kind of resonance with the young people of today as Blume’s book did more than four decades ago and become a classic film in the same way. But the movie is certainly good enough to leave that possibility open.
Rating: 8/10 SPECS
Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret releases in theaters nationwide on April 28th.
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This article was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.
Kyle Logan is a film and television critic and general pop culture writer who has written for Alternative Press, Cultured Vultures, Film Stories, Looper, and more. Kyle is particularly interested in horror and animation, as well as genre films written and directed by queer people and women. Along with writing, Kyle organizes a Queer Film Challenge on Letterboxd.