Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret Review: The First Great Film Of 2023

In a desert littered with intellectual-property revivals, prequels, sequels, and other failed attempts at blockbuster fare, "Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret" is an oasis. Though this adaptation of the beloved Judy Blume novel cannot claim to be wholly original, itself a take on one of the most well-known YA novels ever published, it represents a remarkable and welcome balm from the current state of the modern movie. Here is a film that, like its source material, treats its characters with care and tenderness, establishing an instant and unbreakable bond with the audience that hits home in scene after scene. Coming from Kelly Fremon Craig, the writer/director of the smart and spiky teen dramedy "The Edge of Seventeen," it's little surprise that "Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret" is so calmly brilliant, so intelligent, and patient, and knowing. This is the first great film of the new year.

For those who haven't read Blume's novel, a landmark in YA publishing, Craig's adapted screenplay would still be able to resonate. Abby Ryder Fortson plays Margaret Simon, a sixth-grader whose year at school begins with upheaval before the first day, as her parents (Rachel McAdams and Benny Safdie) move from New York City to the suburbs of New Jersey. While Margaret has to get used to life in the suburbs, she quickly makes friends with Nancy (Elle Graham), Gretchen (Katherine Kupferer), and Janie (Amari Alexis Price), who are all looking forward to their entry into womanhood (i.e., getting their first period), while dishing dirt about a female classmate who hit puberty very early, and pining after cute boys. All this comes as Margaret's teacher (Echo Kellum) assigns her a research project about religion upon learning that she's not religiously affiliated and that her mother was raised Christian and her father was raised Jewish. Thus, the famous title of the story, which is accompanied by voiceover narration as Margaret sporadically addresses God in the hopes of not being the last of her friends to get her period, of getting to kiss a boy, and of making sure her extended family doesn't get rent asunder.

"Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret" is not a film whose stakes are immensely high, and yet the personal connection of those stakes makes every last moment feel impossibly important. (The same was true of "The Edge of Seventeen," also shepherded to the big screen by this film's producer, Oscar-winning filmmaker James L. Brooks.) Much of the joy of the story, both as written by Blume and as brought to life here by Craig, is in the relatability and familiarity represented by these characters. Margaret's specific life experience — not just being a girl on the cusp of womanhood, but having been raised by parents of different religious backgrounds — may not be shared by everyone, but it all feels quite true as realized on screen. (If there's anything remotely iffy regarding this film's realism, it's the idea that Kathy Bates is a believable Jewish grandmother, but her performance is so winning that it doesn't matter.) The arc of the film maps cleanly to the sixth-grade year that Margaret and her friends all progress through, and is made all the stronger thanks to a few key performances.

A sneakily powerful set of performances

The linchpin for "Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret" is unsurprisingly Abby Ryder Fortson. Perhaps most well-known up to this point for having played Scott Lang's daughter in the first two "Ant-Man" movies, Fortson quickly shows herself to be an immensely capable actress, shifting smoothly and effortlessly among a range of emotions, and establishing this as a true star-making performance. There's no more powerful scene for Fortson in the film than the one in which Margaret gradually realizes that while her parents have essentially backed away from organized religion, her mother was essentially disowned by her parents for marrying someone outside the Christian faith. The way the scene builds to a simple yet heartbreaking crescendo is carefully modulated through Craig's script and direction but emphasized strongly by the deft work from Fortson, which manages to sneak up on the audience for maximal emotional effectiveness. Her winning spirit throughout is a big part of what makes this film so special.

Fortson is well matched by her adult costars, especially Rachel McAdams. Though for anyone close enough to her age to remember when she was once Regina George in "Mean Girls," it may be a little humbling to realize she's now the mom and no longer the student, McAdams' performance as a mother trying to balance the desire to be more present for her daughter and her artistic longings is as precise and careful and impactful as anything else in the film. The little moments are what make her performance hit so hard, as when Margaret's mother has to repeat a simple phrase to get through the story of why her parents disowned her without completely breaking down in tears. She unsurprisingly is able to shift towards humor, too, as in her reaction to Margaret wanting her first bra. Bates, as Margaret's grandmother, walks a finer line between being funny and being a bit caricaturish, but it always lands on the right side of the balance.

"Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret" is arriving in theaters the week before the true summer movie season begins. This month alone, we're now getting a sense from movie studios that they just may want to invest in sending films to theaters as opposed to streaming. (What a novel idea!) And while future entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe or the umpteenth "Fast and the Furious" movie are guaranteed to do well, it's films like this that need and deserve support. The landscape of modern movies feels awfully grim if you don't only want to watch big, loud blockbusters all the time. Not too long ago (or at least it feels not too long ago), films like "Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret" did not feel quite so rare. Films that spoke to a wide audience, that resonated well beyond an initial viewing and managed to tell stories existing entirely within the real world without having life-or-death stakes are so uncommon now that when they come along, they feel like a wonderfully happy accident. Here is a film that deserves your attention and your support. This is a special film, and one worth discussing for the rest of the year and afterwards. It opens April 28, and you shouldn't wait a day more to watch it.

/Film Rating: 9.5 out of 10