Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. Is Pleasant Enough in a Vanilla Pudding Sort of Way

Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret. is probably a nice, worthwhile coming-of-age movie. But it comes off as a bland fantasy film about a land peopled by smiling denizens in sunny dreamscapes who have such mild problems that they aren’t actually problems.

Abby Ryder Fortson as Margaret Simon in Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. (Lionsgate, 2023)

Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. is probably a very nice, worthwhile movie. I can’t tell for sure, only because this adaptation of Judy Blume’s landmark coming-of-age book is so far from any reality I’ve ever experienced, watching it was like watching a bland fantasy film about a land that never existed, peopled by smiling denizens in sunny dreamscapes who have such mild problems that they aren’t actually problems, they’re just slightly less happy states than their regular states of total contentment.

It’s about a twelve-year-old girl named Margaret Simon (Abby Ryder Fortson) who lives in New York City with her loving parents Barbara (Rachel McAdams) and Herbert (Benny Safdie), and near her doting grandmother Sylvia (Kathy Bates). She goes to camp all summer long and has lots of friends and likes everything about her life, so the first nonproblem is that her father got a promotion and the family, sans grandmother, is moving to a big house in suburban New Jersey.

But the very first day that they arrive at their spacious new home, a dauntingly cool girl named Nancy (Elle Graham) comes to the door, the thin blonde kind that already looks good in a bikini at age twelve, and asks Margaret to hang out with her that afternoon. Then Margaret’s invited to be the last member of Nancy’s four-girl club of tight friends who do everything together.

You see what I mean? That’s the way the whole movie goes.

Judy Blume is famous for taking on the realistically urgent issues facing young girls that no one else of her era would talk or write about frankly: menstruation, sexuality, peer pressure, and so on.

So among Margaret’s next big problems are desperately wanting to wear a bra even though she doesn’t need one, and being terrified that she’ll be the last girl in the club to have her period. Her nice, understanding mother buys her a bra anyway, and she’s not the last girl to start menstruating. And when she does, it’s greeted with hugs and hosannas and Mom’s proud tears that her little girl is a woman now.

Maybe that’s how things go with some of the world’s fortunate, I don’t know.

Look, my sense of girls’ problems growing up is a lot closer to Carrie than it is to Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. For me, school from kindergarten on was like being locked in a zoo dominated by the meanest monkeys ever bred in captivity. The only creatures more vicious than some of the kids were the adults; back in the days teachers worked off their psychological traumas on their students without fear of consequences. The principal of my school dealt with disciplinary issues by punching kids and throwing them into lockers with reverberating bangs heard throughout the building.

And by the way, it was quite an affluent school overall, always very highly ranked in the state. To be one of the poorer kids in that school was to get an early education in class warfare.

Margaret’s new teacher is, naturally, a staggering paragon of perfection, a quiet, gentle young black man named Mr. Benedict (Echo Kellum), who takes an earnest interest in each individual student. He encourages Margaret to write about her troubled experience of religion, because she’s torn between her Jewish father and grandmother, and her mother, whose conservative Christian parents cast her off years earlier for marrying a Jew. I know — no contest, right? Yet Margaret goes on to do thorough exploratory fieldwork attending Jewish, Catholic, and a few different Protestant denominational services.

Her parents aren’t pressuring her in any way to make a choice, by the way. Margaret’s whole life is so downy-soft, it’s bewildering. Why she’s such a God nagger, begging her personal deity to relieve the pain of every damn mosquito bite in her life, I don’t know.

Even when I was in fifth or sixth grade, and every girl in my class was reading Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. and discussing it in furtive tones, I couldn’t relate. I remember skimming through a few pages and feeling the absolute disinterest of one reading, years after outgrowing it, Dr Seuss’s Hop on Pop. It seems Pop doesn’t like his kids hopping on him, or something.

There’s a documentary called Judy Blume Forever currently running on Amazon Prime, and in it, celebrity women like Molly Ringwald, Lena Dunham, and Samantha Bee are interviewed and rave about how Blume got them through their most difficult times and answered their most urgent questions. Maybe that’s where my inability to relate starts — though I was roughly of the generation that saw the beginning of Judy Blume Mania, I didn’t have the experience of the total ignorance of the facts of life that others reportedly did.

It’s typical of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. that there’s a nerdy, pudgy, bowtie-wearing “brain” character nobody likes and everyone makes fun of, but he’s oddly full of self-confidence and invites everyone in his class to a party at his house. All the kids, even those considered the coolest, go to his party. Sometimes this movie seems like such far-out fiction, you expect a herd of unicorns to show up in the next scene and fly all the kids to the moon.

Anyway, all of Margaret’s mosquito bites are healed in the end, and she figures out that Nancy isn’t very nice, so she picks a better friend who’s being slut-shamed because she’s tall for her age and grew breasts early. Mysterious casting makes it look as if this character is about twenty-seven years old and finishing up grad school, so that’s confusing. But overall, the actors are pretty good, especially Kathy Bates saving several scenes with her whiplash comic timing as the bracing grandmother. The kids are mostly talented and sometimes quite adorable.

The whole thing’s pleasant, I guess, in a vanilla pudding sort of way. And Judy Blume personally approved the choice of director Kelly Fremon Craig (Edge of Seventeen), so presumably this adaptation is what she hoped to see. Blume herself seems like a well-meaning woman who did what she could to help the kids she knew about, mostly the prosperous kind from fairly stable families experiencing the occasional mild upheaval in their lives. You couldn’t expect her to tackle the American childhood version of Maxim Gorky’s The Lower Depths, I guess, and be the first to write a kids’ book dealing with menstruation.