After tackling the angst of the high school years in the 2016 film “The Edge of Seventeen,” director Kelly Fremon Craig is back with her new film “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.” — this time addressing the awkwardness of being a pre-teen girl.
“Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.” — based on a Judy Blume novel of the same title — follows 11-year-old Margaret, played by Abby Ryder Fortson, who is an only child on the cusp of adolescence in 1970. Her family is moving from New York City to the suburbs of New Jersey. Understandably, she’s not too thrilled about living in the Garden State.
The film is admirably open and blunt about the struggles of girlhood and growing up. Margaret struggles with her body image. She’s insecure about having her first period later than her classmates. She doesn’t know why her maternal grandparents are absent from her life. The film discusses topics of girlhood like body development and periods openly — they are not taboo, and Fremon Craig avoids feeling intrusive or disrespectful.
Fortson — whom audiences may recognize as Cassie Lang from the first two “Ant-Man” films — is excellent in her first lead role. She wears the insecurities of a middle-schooler on her face and through her line delivery. It’s not often a child-lead performance possesses the poise and command Forston has when she’s on the screen.
Margaret’s religious curiosity plays a large role in the film. Her parents — one Jewish and the other Christian, played by Benny Safdie and Rachel McAdams, respectively — raised her secularly, so she seeks out different religious experiences. She goes to temple with her grandma, played by Kathy Bates, and Christian services with her friends.
Her search for a religious identity represents a greater search for personal identity. Throughout the film, Margaret talks to a God she’s not sure she believes in. These conversations serve as Margaret’s inner monologue, and eventually, it’s clear she only talks to God because, as an only child in a new town, she just wants someone to listen to her.
McAdams — like Fortson — impresses in her role as Margaret’s mother Barbara. She portrays a loving mother dealing with issues of her own. In one scene, Margaret inquires about her maternal grandparents. Barbara, after some resistance, relents and explains why her parents have never met Margaret — they distanced themselves from Barbara after she married a Jewish man. McAdams effortlessly sheds a few tears during this scene, and in this moment, Margaret realizes her mother is a human being facing her own problems and pressures. Subtle emotional moments like these give the film a lot of heart.
Even minor characters manage their own struggles onscreen. Margaret’s grandma feels abandoned after her family moves to New Jersey. Margaret’s teacher, played by Echo Kellum, faces nerves and anxiety during his first year of teaching. Laura, played by Isol Young — who is taller and looks older than everyone else in sixth grade — deals with her own insecurities about her appearance and body. The film’s ability to flesh out so many characters elevates it from a basic pre-teen film to a layered picture of a middle school in suburban America.
“Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.” isn’t groundbreaking in any way, but it succeeds in doing exactly what it wants to. It candidly and empathetically portrays puberty, girlhood and the pains that come with growing up. It is a film that may be helpful and comforting to young girls facing similar things.
Margaret doesn’t fully come to any conclusions with her search for religion, but that’s life. Often, there are no clear answers to people’s questions. What matters is that she was able to use her curiosity to independently find her place amidst the chaos of adolescence.
Anchored by outstanding performances by Fortson and McAdams, the film charms, imparts wisdom and pulls at the heartstrings.