JUDY BLUME’s 1970 teenage classic Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret (Cert. PG) is finally a film. The pre-pubescent Margaret (Abby Ryder Fortson), moving to New Jersey, is thrown among newfound friends whom she reckons a great deal more sophisticated. Bewildered, she turns to God for guidance.
Her mother, Barbara (Rachel McAdams), brought up by strict Christian parents, was disowned on marrying Herb, a Jew (Benny Safdie). Consequently, Barbara and her husband decided that Margaret could make up her own mind up when she became an adult.
Her grandmother Sylvia (Kathy Bates) thinks differently, and, on a weekend visit back to New York City, takes her to the temple. Herb isn’t phased by this. The best way to abandon religion is to expose her to a couple of boring services, he argues. Margaret also goes to church at Christmas time. In the seclusion that her bedroom grants, she tells God that she is more confused than ever. Which religion should I choose, she asks.
Meanwhile, Barbara is mirroring her daughter’s attempts to fit in with contemporaries: a group of airhead Stepford wives. Margaret appears more successful than her mother, talking candidly to a “secret society” of girl friends, led by the rather precocious Nancy (Elle Graham). Their conversations are mainly about sexual matters. Back home, prayers hover around desperation about not yet menstruating or having a bust, whereas some friends are a little ahead in those respects.
In class, Laura (Isol Young), not one of the Margaret’s peer group, is, on the other hand, mocked and slandered for being so well-developed physically. She, a Roman Catholic, regularly goes to confession. Why, asks Margaret. We are left wondering whether that, too, is about sex, and whether faith is compatible with it. And when things also kick off at home over the practice of beliefs, Margaret is beset with doubts about the part that institutional religion plays in just making life worse.
What is endearing about this film is its ability to remind those of us who have reached maturity of the way that we ourselves were then, and where God is in all this. Faith groups only obscure any true vision of God for Margaret, not that this 11-year-old has much experience of a divine presence. Mostly, her prayers are little more than frantically beseeching God to start her periods as quickly as possible.
Both Margaret and Barbara are motivated by a fear of missing out. The director, Kelly Fremon Craig, captures this well. There is humour and pathos that never descends into sentimentality, thanks to outstanding performances from the Simon family. Despite the title’s religious allusion, there is scarcely any theological exploration to be found. Margaret clings to a mechanistic view of an interventionist God whose reality will be vindicated only if the menarche occurs.
Nor, in relation to her parents’ attitudes to matters of faith, is there any consideration of their naïvety. Do they also let their daughter make up her own mind about having a measles vaccination or going to school? They do Margaret a disservice in not giving spiritual guidance. Thank the Lord, she knows her need of God, even if they don’t.