Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret.

When I was growing up, everyone read Judy Blume’s books. They appealed to both girls and boys, and we eagerly shared our favorite chapters from them at school. The author has long been resistant to allowing her work be translated for the screen, until now. She put her trust in writer/director Kelly Fremon Craig, whose Edge of Seventeen is one of the best teen movies of the last 20 years. That trust was well-earned, as Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret. is a smart, funny, and insightful coming-of-age tale that thoroughly delights from beginning to end.

Set in 1970, the story revolves around Margaret Simon (Abby Ryder Fortson), an 11-year-old who is very unhappy to learn her parents Barbara (Rachel McAdams) and Herb (Benny Safdie) are planning to move the family from Manhattan to a New Jersey suburb. Among other things, it means being away from her beloved grandmother Sylvia (Kathy Bates). Not long after arriving in the new town, she makes three friends: Nancy (Elle Graham), Janie (Amari Alexis Price), and Gretchen (Katherine Mallen Kupferer). Under Nancy’s influence, the girls in their “secret club” obsess over training bras and waiting to get their periods. Pending changes in their bodies are as exciting as they are scary.

Meanwhile, Margaret struggles with her feelings on religion. Her father is Jewish, her mother Christian. Neither of them want to force their beliefs on her. She prays to God for guidance on multiple issues pertaining to puberty, boys, friendship, and family harmony.

The power of Judy Blume’s books comes from the fact that she takes childhood and adolescent problems seriously. There’s no interest in cheap jokes or silliness. She goes for truth. Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret. follows that approach. Tween girls doing bust-enhancement exercises and learning about menstruation could be fodder for smarmy comedy, but the movie steadfastly avoids that, earning laughs from the emotionally honest reactions of Margaret and her friends. As with the source material, the screenplay explores the mystery of puberty as we’re entering it, the way kids that age struggle to process the changes that are happening as their bodies take those first steps toward adulthood. You don’t laugh at the characters, you laugh with them, in recognition.

The religion angle is just as compelling. Blume’s book has long been controversial for the idea of a young girl allowed to sort out her own thoughts on religion, along with a subplot about Barbara’s conservative Christian parents who are judgmental and antisemitic. The film’s portrayal of that is authentic, though. Certainly, children have questions. They may grow up getting conflicted messages. Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret. tackles the subject with the same earnestness Blume does on the page. Faith is one more thing Margaret has to confront that she previously, as a younger child, could be blissfully unaware of. In many respects, figuring out what she does/doesn’t believe is every bit as consequential as her physical development.

An observant script is brought beautifully to life by an outstanding cast. Kathy Bates is hilarious as the doting grandma, and Rachel McAdams gets several standout moments as a mom dealing with her own feelings at the same time she’s helping her daughter deal with hers. At the center is Abby Ryder Fortson, who gives a performance full of charm and sincerity. However old you may be, this amazing young actress will have you identifying with Margaret. Every note she hits is right on the money.

Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret. does Judy Blume proud. The movie understands how hard growing up is at times. The details may be specific to its central character, but there’s universality in her experience.

out of four

Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret. is rated PG-13 for thematic material involving sexual education and some suggestive material. The running time is 1 hour and 46 minutes.