There are few stories in cinema which resonate as deeply as a child’s coming-of-age. Combining the bitterness of awkward adolescence and the golden-tinted sweetness of nostalgia, coming-of-age stories transport viewers back to their own messy nests of childhood memories, allowing them to forgive and forget from the safety of someone else’s story. While tween boys have been getting the coming-of-age treatment for decades, the inner lives of tween girls have collected dust on the shelves. Forced prematurely into raunchy teen sex comedies, or left to molder in swamps of catty cliques and Cinderella stories, tween girls haven’t had much of an opportunity to share their growing pains on the big screen. Perhaps it’s because until now, Hollywood didn’t think girls’ stories deserved top billing.
Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret is a movie that believes they do. Margaret is the star of her own story, and even though that story may seem mundane, with its focus on periods, training bras, and childish friendships, it’s still a story that deserves its place on the big screen. Directed by Kelly Fremon Craig, the movie is a warm and authentic adaptation of Judy Blume’s 1970s novel. Though the Margaret of today would be 64 years old, her journey towards self-acceptance resonates just as deeply now as it did more than 50 years ago.
Synopsis: Eleven-year-old Margaret Simon returns home after a blissful summer at camp to discover that her parents have sold their NYC apartment and are set on moving to New Jersey. Distraught at leaving the city and her loving grandmother Sylvia, Margaret entreats God to look after her and help her make the best of her new life in the suburbs. Raised by her Christian mother Barbara and her Jewish father Herb, Margaret has never been sure which religion is best for her. After undertaking a year-long research project, Margaret decides to study both religions to see if either one is the right fit, all the while asking God to help her navigate tricky new friendships, her changing body, and the conflicting desires of her parents and grandparents.
My thoughts: Are You There God? opens on a frenetic montage of summer camp life. Our first glimpse of Margaret reveals her true essence: a girl who is wild, joyful, and soaking up life as if it’s about to run dry. Margaret rests at the precipice of adolescence, and the news of her impending move is just the momentum needed to push her off into the abyss. New Jersey is an entirely different world than New York City, and an initial encounter with new neighbor Nancy, a sixth-grader precociously obsessed with womanhood, sends Margaret down an early path towards adult femininity.
Nancy invites Margaret to her secret club, where she and the other girls vow to never wear socks, always wear a bra, share the gory details of their menstruation, and write about their crushes in their boy books. Each of these rules provide plenty of fodder for laughs. Poor Margaret quickly realizes that bras are more trouble than they’re worth, and pays the price of wearing loafers without socks. The girls ogle one of their father’s PlayBoy magazines, and after seeing the model’s “round” breasts, perform silly “bust enhancement” exercises with cartoonish zeal.
Although these moments are played for laughs, Margaret’s anxieties about being a late-bloomer aren’t intended to be mocked. The movie understands that these little moments in a girl’s life form the foundations of a lifetime of insecurity, and even though the audience might chuckle at Margaret’s worries from our comfortable adult vantage points, we’re laughing with her, never at her. One pivotal scene, in which Margaret learns that her friend Nancy has lied about getting her period, felt like opening a door into a hitherto unexplored room of our adolescent girl psyches. When Nancy finally does get her period, it comes as a terrifying surprise. Despite spending months waiting to “become a woman,” the reality that she’s become one is both disappointing and frightening.
In Are You There God? womanhood is a Pandora’s box of complicated emotions. After pestering her mother for a bra, Margaret realizes that the minute she puts it on, she wants to take it off. She and her friends purchase sanitary pads before they’ve even gotten their periods, and fill their “boy books” with names of their crushes.
Like all young girls, Margaret and her friends wait for womanhood with both excitement and fear. Attempting to understand their mixed emotions makes them quick to lash out at themselves and others for failing to live up to their ideal feminine standards. Nancy, who has dreamed about french-kissing crush Peter LeRoy, spreads rumors about her classmate Laura letting boys “feel her up.” Despite wanting male attention for herself, Nancy is happy to cut down any girl who blooms before her, and has a childish oblivion towards her own hypocrisy. Though it’s clear that Nancy can only be imitating the type of judgmental morality she’s picked up from her parents, it doesn’t make it any easier to watch.
The boys are just as happy to participate in this system, though despite their bravado, they, too, are just acting out pale imitations of their elders. Margaret learns this when Nancy’s crush Peter LeRoy chooses Margaret to participate in “two minutes in the closet,” and gives her her first kiss. As funny as it is to see pre-teen Peter swaggering around with the machismo of a man decades his senior, it’s also slightly sobering to see glimpses of future Peter; a boy who is comfortable ordering girls like Margaret into closets, and later in the movie, giving her a pinch “to grow an inch, and you know where” for her birthday. For all the movie is a vignette of exuberant female adolescence, it’s also a peek into a dimmer future, where wild girls become quiet women, and boys like Peter never lose their swagger.
Although the majority of the movie focuses on Margaret, the adults in her life experience their own miniature coming-of-ages. Her mother Barbara, who had given up her career as an art teacher after moving to the suburbs, searches for a renewed purpose, while her grandmother Sylvia struggles to fill the hole left by Margaret’s absence. All three generations of women are hunting for their place in the world, and while none of them find a panacea for their dissatisfaction, they all end the movie on a better path. Margaret’s father Herb is more of a cipher than her mother and grandmother, and while he’s a charming and supportive presence in the movie, he is never more than Margaret’s Dad. Perhaps that’s the movie’s way of telling us that the women take center stage in this story, and the men, for once, are happy to fade into the background.
The titular God is equally content to take a backseat to Margaret. Her desire to choose her own religion leads to some wonderful scenes of religious exploration, from Margaret accompanying her triumphant grandmother to synagogue, to confessing to a priest in church. And though Margaret appreciates the beauty of religion, by the end of the movie, she has come to terms with the fact that religion won’t bring her any closer to God than she feels when she’s alone. Where other stories might have turned this realization into an opportunity for a lecture, the movie is content to let it be one of several lightbulb moments that come to Margaret throughout her eleventh year. In a year full of bras, periods and first kisses, finding God happens to be one of the less momentous events.
Final consensus: Are You There God? is a joyous coming-of-age story with a touching emotional center. The movie excels in showing every dimension of multifaceted girlhood, from the heights of love and friendship, to the depths of jealousy and regret. Funny, beautifully filmed, and wonderfully acted, the movie skillfully balances an entertaining story with a poignant undercurrent of reflection. Margaret’s triumphs and woes are just as relatable now as they were in the 70s, and the movie sets a high bar for the future of cinematic girlhood.