The sweetest film of 2023 was also one of the most controversial books of the 1970s.
Judy Blume’s coming of age story, “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret,” doesn’t shock with sex (or profanity) but addresses how a girl handles change when her parents move from New York to New Jersey.
That means Margaret (nicely played by Abby Ryder Fortson) won’t be near her beloved grandmother Sylvia (Kathy Bates) and the friends she spent a lifetime making.
Soon, though, New Jersey seems like a hotbed of humanity. There, she meets girls who pull her into a secret club, boys who test her willpower and religions that hover over her actions.
While “The Wonder Years” and “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” might be apt comparisons, “Margaret” is really a tamer look at what might seem a volatile time. The real fun comes when Margaret stirs a competition between grandparents. The tipping point: religion. Her father comes from a Jewish family. Her mother comes from Christian one. Neither religion has grabbed hold of mom (Rachel McAdams) or dad (Benny Safdie). Margaret, however, prays to God, hoping some of her life-changing moments will land softly.
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Directed by Kelly Fremon Craig, “Margaret” isn’t a sharp-focused look at the era (see: “Licorice Pizza”) but a huggable remembrance of a softer time. McAdams is wonderful as a mom trying to find her own path in life; Bates is like an offstage Ethel Merman. They’re great role models for Margaret, who isn’t quite sure where she wants to go.
Plenty of life-changing moments prompt her to choose her own path. A thread about menstruation got Blume a lot of attention back when the book was released but it’s less eye-opening than a middle school film on the subject.
More interesting is how Margaret traverses the world of boys. A boy/girl party introduces her to spin-the-bottle. An outing to Radio City Music Hall tips her off about a friend.
Fortson is a charming role model, finding moments that resonate – whether with a girl her friends deem unworthy or with her mother who’s looking for her own sense of fulfillment.
The film’s set is stuffed with geegaws you may remember if you’re old enough (copper Jell-O molds, anyone?) and a comfort level that suggests the times were a bit better. “The Wonder Years” might have been a better historic memoir but “Margaret” is timeless in the way it approaches key moments in life.
It’s not going to trigger any trauma but it might just make you wish for times with princess phones, not social media.