It’s not just you: 2023 is the year of Judy Blume. The iconic author has seen on-screen adaptations dating back to a “Forever” 1978 TV movie, the 2012 big-screen take on “Tiger Eyes,” even a ’90s-era TV series, “Fudge-a-Mania,” and now she has a documentary and a feature released within days of each other. She’s seemingly, suddenly everywhere — and thank goodness for that because, we need her now more than ever.
The Blume book you know (and love) best — the titillating “Forever”? the wacky “Fudge” series? the aching “Deenie”? — is more than a litmus test for your young-adult literary obsessions; it can also hold hints as to what you’ve held on to, even as an adult. However, we’ll hazard a guess that “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” is her most enduring book, if only because, tucked inside its wonderfully specific story about a pre-teen girl eagerly anticipating the arrival of her first period, there is also a deeply universal tale of searching for life’s meaning at any age.
That’s the magic of Blume’s books: Ostensibly for kids and young adults, the author treats all of her characters and their concerns as being worthy of examination. The stakes might seem different for, say, Margaret’s mom worrying about reconnecting with her parents after they cut her off long ago over her choice of husband versus her sixth-grade daughter agonizing over when she’ll need her first bra. For Blume, these people and their problems are all important, all vital, and all worthy of respect.
Judy Blume never talked down to kids or adults, and such is the spirit that drives Kelly Fremon Craig’s film adaptation of “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.” It’s an adaptation that Blume long resisted, at least before “The Edge of Seventeen” filmmaker and her mentor and producer James L. Brooks pitched their idea to her, but Blume’s book translates beautifully to the big screen with same zip, pep, and good humor of Blume’s books.
“Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” isn’t just the best Blume adaptation currently available, it’s also an instant classic of the coming-of-age genre, a warm, witty, incredibly inspiring film that is already one of the year’s best. This will likely not come as news to anyone who loves Blume’s books or was treated to Fremon Craig’s first feature (itself also an instant classic, this woman is two-for-two!), but that doesn’t diminish the absolute joy of this film (or the revelation that, yes, decades-old IP really can yield modern masterpieces).
Adapted for the screen by Fremon Craig, “Are You There God?” stays true to its source material, with a handful of changes to tighten the storyline and losing nothing in translation. Set in the early ’70s, we first meet 11-year-old Margaret Simon (a star-making turn from the gifted Abby Ryder Fortson) at the tail-end of a great summer, heading home to her beloved New York City after a riotous time at sleepaway camp.
But things have changed in Margaret’s life without her knowing — heck, without her even being present — and when her slightly harried mom Barbara (a delightful Rachel McAdams) picks Margaret up, she’s packing a couple of major hints that life is different. There’s the new car she’s bought, and there’s Margaret’s glowering grandma Sylvia off on the side (Kathy Bates, having the time of her life).
Still, Margaret is just so happy to be home with her tight family (plus her dad Herb, played with unexpected charm by Benny Safdie) that she doesn’t quite get that everything is about to be upended with just one let-slip secret from a righteously mad Sylvia: Margaret, Barbara, and Herb are moving. To a house. In New Jersey.
It’s perhaps the first big change of young Margaret’s life, but one that will set many more into motion. In suburban New Jersey, Margaret’s existence is thrown into disarray (a tough tonal tightrope, but one that Fremon Craig and her stars make both scary and incredibly amusing). There’s her mouthy new neighbor Nancy (Elle Graham), who quickly invites Margaret into a secret club that hinges on everything from sharing crushes to getting bras to light bullying, setting into motion a maturation Margaret didn’t see coming. There’s her still-reeling grandmother, desperate to talk to her only grandchild. There’s her mother’s also-evolving life, one beset by its own many changes (coming of age really does happen at any age).
And there’s God. Margaret first starts talking to God in a fit over the New Jersey news — clasping her hands together and praying to the man upstairs that he stop the move, or at least make it not so bad — a new inclination for a kid who has been raised mostly outside of religion. So while many people likely remember Blume’s book for its honest and amusing approach to Margaret’s physical changes, Fremon Craig doesn’t skimp on the metaphysical elements either. Growing up really means growing in all directions, in all ways. As Margaret moves toward adulthood, she soon realizes that religion — just as messy and confusing and divisive as the body stuff — is an inevitable part of that.
Tracking Margaret over her sixth-grade year, “Are You There God?” has plenty of fertile material. And while set in the ’70s, the problems that Margaret faces (and Barbara and Sylvia too, in their own stories) feel remarkably relatable and fresh. It’s perennially rich stuff, even if the details have evolved over the years (not many young girls these days are stuck using the pillow-y “Teenage Softies” pads Margaret and her friends start buying, for one), the feelings remain the same.
It also allows Fremon Craig and the rest of her team to have a damn fine time mining the details of Blume’s original story. The period-appropriate production never feels fussy or stagey, but lived-in and believable. Steve Saklad’s production design and Ann Roth’s costumes add real texture to Margaret and her family’s life: A running bit about Barbara being unable to pick a new couch inspires many fun options, while a moment in which Barbara removes the leaves from their dining room table after a disastrous visit with her parents is one of the film’s most heartbreaking.
First published in 1970, “Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret” is an enduring classic for a reason. This is a warm film, a good-hearted film, a funny film, with something to offer everyone. That’s so rare these days, but as we welcome the Judy Blumeissance with open arms, we need to remember it wasn’t always so rare, and the stories and characters that persist do so with good reason: They’re timeless.
Lionsgate will release “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” in theaters on Friday, April 28.