Even if he never writes or directs anything again, James L. Brooks has already amassed an iconic legacy of masterful television and film projects such as Terms Of Endearment, Broadcast News, and the Mary Tyler Moore Show, not to mention putting his stamp on producing The Simpsons, which has been running for 34 seasons and counting. He has been particularly adept with strong female characters, providing career-defining roles for such women as Shirley MacLaine, Debra Winger, Holly Hunter, Helen Hunt, Julie Kavner, and the aforementioned, late great Mary Tyler Moore.
It makes sense then, that for someone who has made such humanistic projects as he has, that he would want to pass the torch to a worthy heir, and Brooks has clearly found such a talent in writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig. Brooks seems to have tested the waters by producing her debut feature, The Edge Of Seventeen, a refreshingly assured coming-of-age comedy from 2016 starring Hailee Steinfeld. Clearly pleased with the results, they have collaborated again, getting legendary author Judy Blume’s blessing on adapting her treasured 1970 novel, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret to the screen. Well, whatever Brooks was praying to or for, he was heard, because Fremon Craig has not only done Blume proud, but she has also brought that Brooks level of quirky, neurotic, unpredictable, zig-zag rhythm to her lovely filmmaking but with a voice of her own. She honors Brooks’ commitment to character specificity without imitating him, and this film is a joy to behold.
It’s the end of summer 1970, and 11-year-old Margaret Simon (Abby Ryder Fortson) has just returned from camp to her New York City life where her parents Barbara (Rachel McAdams) and Herb (Benny Safdie) break the news to their daughter that they’re immediately moving away from grandma Sylvia (Kathy Bates) to the suburbs of New Jersey. Horrified by the idea of being uprooted, Margaret begins her conversation with God, an unlikely undertaking considering she has eschewed religion up to this point in her life. With a Jewish father and a Christian mother, she has been given the choice to not make any decisions regarding faith until she enters into adulthood. With so many questions formulating in her mind and a classroom assignment on religion narrowing that timeline, Margaret just might not be able to wait that long. It seems she has no time to waste when it comes to learning about sexuality, menstruation, her developing body, friendship, bullying, lies, and that big higher power.
Back on the ground in Jersey, it doesn’t take long for Margaret to meet her neighbor Nancy Wheeler (a perfectly cast Elle Graham), a future Mean Girls-esque Regina George in the making if ever there was one. Nancy accepts her into her secret club of girls who include Gretchen (Katherine Mallen Kupferer) and the adorable Janie (Amari Alexis Price). Their adventures lead to some of the most famous moments from the novel, including the purchasing of sanitary napkins and the classic chant, “We must, we must, we must increase our bust!” Some of their moments involve sweet times with boys, but others give Margaret pause, such as when they seem to ostracize a fellow student or spread unnecessary lies.
Margaret also witnesses complex issues regarding religion within her parents’ marriage and how her mother has stifled her own creative ambitions with their new life away from the city. Margaret’s only respite from everything seems to be with her beloved grandma, who treats her to Broadway shows and slumber parties. I mean, who wouldn’t want to curl up with Kathy Bates for a girls night? Bates, as always, is a scene-stealing force of nature here. But part of growing up means Margaret learning that even grandmas don’t just want to spend all their time with children. Coming of age is hard, and Margaret seems to hit a wall everywhere she turns.
With a story like this, packed as it is with so much novelistic incident, it either sinks or swims by the compelling nature of its protagonist. Thankfully, Fremon Craig has struck gold with Fortson, an assured, focused, confident actor who blisteringly tears through this film from beginning to end. She’s right up there with Aurora Greenway, Emma Greenway, and Jane Craig in finding vulnerability in the assertive, and kindness in what is often considered blunt. It’s a fantastic, attention-deserving performance. When she experiences something life-changing late in the film, her reaction brought me to tears. There’s not a whiff of “cutesy child actor” about her performance. It’s a fully realized character and made me hopeful, just like the novel, that young girls will aspire to be just as complicated, layered, and as perfectly imperfect as Margaret.
Same goes for McAdams, who has kindness gushing out of her pores here, yet has to go on her own journey of self-realization to understand that sometimes it’s OK to not make everybody happy. She also happens to be one of the best listeners in the business, her eyes always seem so alive in her scenes, filled with empathy, anxiety, and everything in between. Safdie, best known as one half of the brothers who directed Uncut Gems, acquits himself well as the father who resents his wife’s parents for judging him. I also enjoyed Kate MacCluggage as Nancy’s very uptight mother who seems to have never let the Eisenhower era go.
It’s important to note that the novel was squarely aimed at young adults, as is the film. While some of the themes are mature, it keeps things fairly light in tone, never getting terribly deep or harsh. Fremon Craig clearly communicated this to her crew as well. I especially appreciated that Tim Ives’ cinematography didn’t lean into the trope of a sun-dappled 1970s look but instead opted for a more simple naturalism. Same goes for Steve Saklad’s detailed but unfussy production design. Ann Roth’s costume design also contributed greatly to the look of this film, from McAdams’ hip hugger jeans to those clearly painful sock-free loafers Fortson wears. This unassuming approach feels intentional by design, and as such, the film is an adorable joy from beginning to end. I can’t wait to see what Fremon Craig does next.
For over 50 years, the novel has inspired generations of young people to be better people, to be more aware of their growing bodies, to be kind to others, and to celebrate our differences. Judy Blume had turned down many offers over the years to adapt this book, but clearly she, like James L. Brooks, saw something in Fremon Craig that made her say yes. I’m so glad she did. Hopefully, with this gem of a film, Blume’s wonderfully messy message can reach out even further and inspire generations of young girls to not want to be perfect little Barbies but to be brash, bold, funny, sweet, Margarets instead.
By Glenn Gaylord, Senior Film Critic
Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret opens in theaters Friday, April 28th.
Leave a Reply