Writer/director Kelly Fremon Craig (“The Edge of Seventeen”) hits all the right notes in her adaptation of Judy Blume’s first YA novel “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret”. It’s 1970 and eleven-year-old Margaret Simon (Abby Ryder Fortson, marvelous) returns from summer camp to her beloved New York City only to be informed by her mom Barbara (Rachel McAdams), and dad Herb (Benny Safdie) that the family is moving to a New Jerzy suburb for her father’s job. Margaret is devastated. She does not want to leave the city and she resents being away from Sylvia, her beloved grandmother on her father’s side (Kathy Bates brightens up every scene she’s in). Although she is not sure he/she exists, Margaret begins to communicate with God about her anxieties, thoughts, and hopes. Upon moving to New Jersey, she is quickly befriended by her neighbor and classmate Nancy Wheeler (striking newcomer Elle Graham) who welcomes her into her friend group which includes Gretchen (Katherine Kupferer) and Janie (Amari Alexis Price). It’s puberty time so, shopping for a bra with mom and the embarrassment of purchasing a sanitary pad at the local store, are part of the course.
At school, Margaret is given a year-long research assignment by her teacher, Mr. Benedict (Echo Kellum). When he learns she dislikes holidays, Margaret explains that since her mom is Christian and her dad is Jewish, the family does not observe holidays and it has been left up to Margaret to decide on her religious identity when she reaches adulthood. We also discover, in a beautifully acted scene by McAdams, who steals the picture, that Barbara is estranged from her devoutly Christian parents because of her marriage to Herb. As a result, Margaret has never met her maternal grandparents. Mr. Benedict encourages Margaret to explore various religions and to ask her mom about her grandparents. She goes to different places of worship, accompanying a kvelling Sylvia to temple where she hears shana tova, Shabbat shalom, mazel tov, and la cheim (seemingly!) for the first time (Sylvia had been warned my mom and dad not to get too kosher with Margaret). She also attends a Black Christian church service with Janie and goes to a Nativity mass during Christmas with Nancy. All have something to offer, yet none of them really impress her.
Well, God moves in mysterious ways and, within a few days, Margaret gets the news that Sylvia, like all New York Jews once they hit 65, is moving to Florida. She also discovers that her friend Nancy can be cruel to kids outside of their little group, and, instigated by her own questioning, her mom has reconciled with her parents who are now on their way for a visit. Since this is their first time meeting Margaret they smother her with attention and cannot resist the urge to bring her into their faith. When Sylvia makes a surprise appearance, the fight for Margaret’s soul is on. Oy gevalt!
We worry for Margaret but, like Mary Badham’s character in “To Kill a Mockingbird”, we know, instinctively, that nothing bad can happen. She is loved by many and she is growing up to be a very fine young lady. Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, or otherwise, she will be a credit to her mom, her dad, Sylvia, and the others. We need more movies like this!