The story of “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” remains as relevant to teens today as when the Judy Blume book came out in 1970. The story of a young girl navigating the first rocky steps into adolescence while changing schools and navigating her parents’ different religious backgrounds, what happens to Margaret (Abby Ryder Fortson) happens to lots of young girls, and Margaret’s yearning to just be happy and normal is universal.
“I think one of the magic tricks of the book is that anybody who reads it, in any decade, experiences it as contemporary,” director Kelly Fremon Craig told IndieWire. “When I read it in 1990, I had no idea it was written 20 years prior, so I was projecting all my own childhood images of the ’90s onto everything. And the book cover looked like it was contemporary, you know what I mean? So I had no idea [it was set in 1970].”
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But any film adaptation of “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” needs to pick a specific time and place for Margaret. “The difference between a book and a film is I have to choose visually,” Fremon Craig said. “Like, I have to set us in a time period and make choices. And what I didn’t want was for [those choices] to feel alienating to people who didn’t grow up in 1970 or had seen it differently in their minds. So I was trying to thread this needle between [the film] looking both of the time and also timeless. It was at the center of my mind the whole time as I was thinking about how to build this world visually.”
Much of how that needle gets threaded is down to the work of production designer Steve Saklad and costume designer Ann Roth, who never go as fully loud and proud in the late ’60s and early ’70s style as the period might warrant. “Margaret’s room, for instance, my hope was that her room would feel like you could see that in 1970, but you could also see it in 1980 or today, you know? That it would just have this timeless nostalgia that everybody would be able to feel back into their own childhood,” Fremon Craig said.
But Fremon Craig and cinematographer Tim Ives are also leaning on the scale slightly in the quality of light, bathing the film in a warmth that makes the characters and their world seem just a little bit softer, a little more like a memory. “I really love this sort of side light, this light that cuts through and creates little [patterns], this dappled light on the floor,” Fremon Craig said. “There’s something about that light streaming through a window that just evokes something nostalgic for me. I don’t know quite why, but where the carpet is sort of lit up in places, it feels like home to me.”
The filmmakers made very deliberate choices about what in “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” should look like home and feel intensely familiar and where they could emphasize period detail so that the film still reads as authentically of its time. If Rachel McAdams’ hair and clothes are a little bit more modern as Margaret’s mother, Barbara, Nancy’s mother Jan (Kate MacCluggage) gets to go full Stepford Wife; if Margaret’s father Herb (Benny Safdie) looks like a corny dad with unkempt hair and baggy weekend shorts from time immemorial, his mother Sylvia’s updo and bold print patterns look deliberately stuck a few decades back. “I don’t know if most people feel this way, but [the way that Sylvia looks] is always how my grandma felt to me. Like, she had that hairdo that she had when she was like 30 and never changed it. That was it, you know?” Fremon Craig said.
Fremon Craig and Ives also accentuated the film’s imagery to craft a sense of a story that is a little bit outside of its time period. The camera focuses on the kind of things that can take up a child’s whole world, no matter what time period they’re growing up in. “[It’s] that time in your life before self-consciousness has been introduced,” Fremon Craig said of the film’s opening summer camp montage.
“I remember this very distinct change in my life when I suddenly was aware of myself, was aware of people looking at me and judging me,” the director said. “But I remember the time before that when I had no self-consciousness and I was just like two eyeballs looking out at the world. My whole sense of self was just everything I saw [and] there was such like freedom and abandon in that. Like, your hair’s a mess and you have a popsicle mustache and all these things and you don’t know and you don’t care.”
The opening montage of Margaret at summer camp primes the viewer to look at the world like Margaret does, and then slowly introduces the kind of emphasis on the beginnings of self-consciousness that Blume’s book explores so fearlessly, lingering on the mundane but unexplored details of putting on a sanitary pad for the first time or the unseen steps of getting ready for a party. That emphasis was, for Fremon Craig, key to bringing the spirit of Blume’s voice into the visual language of “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.”
“The feeling that her work gives me is that it’s always honest. She’s always telling the truth. It also rides a certain line where it’s almost a little scary how honest it is. It kind of makes you go, ‘Oh, are we allowed to say that?’ That’s the feeling Judy Blume gives me,” Fremon Craig said. “So, for instance, filming the scene with Margaret trying on the pad for the first time. That was something that felt a little like, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t believe we’re seeing this.’ It’s something that’s so simple and ordinary and that half the population does, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen it on film in that way. So it felt a little electric.”
That exploration of the small realities of growing up is also part of why “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” transcends its period — or, at least, its time period.