Last week I had the singular thrill of breathing the same oxygen as the national treasure that is author Judy Blume when she sat for a Q&A at the 92nd St. Y before a screening of the new movie Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret. Blume shared the stage with Kelly Fremon Craig, the director of the 50-years-in-the-making movie of the YA classic that has educated young people about breasts, periods, friendship and the search for spirituality and identity.
A very fit and energetic 85, Blume greeted the rapt, mostly (though happily not entirely) female audience with joy and affection. Craig, behind the camera for only her second feature (after 2016’s The Edge Of Seventeen), admitted to being a “Judy Blume Superfan”. She particularly connected with Margaret because “it was so reassuring to see a character have the same emotions I had”. Craig had to court the reluctant author, who had been incredibly resistant to letting anyone interpret her book for the big screen. As for Blume, “I’m so glad I waited 50 years. I wouldn’t be running around, losing my voice (she was hoarse, endearing herself to the audience even more) if I didn’t love the movie. If you like the book, you’re gonna love the movie”. So there you have it, folks: if it has Judy Blume’s seal of approval, you too will love it.
But for those who haven’t read the 1970 book or have forgotten much of it, the movie does expand on the novel, which was from the more limited point of view of its youthful narrator. Margaret’s parents, Barbara (Rachel McAdams) and Herb (Bennie Safdie), get a good amount of screen time, especially Barbara as she gives up her life and work in Manhattan to move to the suburbs of New Jersey and be a full-time mother to Margaret (Abby Ryder Fortson). Barbara, unlike her husband, isn’t Jewish, and is still reeling from her parents cutting her off after she married a Jewish man, and also contending with Herb’s very vocal mother Sylvia (Kathy Bates).
Margaret Simon, meanwhile, is dealing with being separated from her beloved, Broadway-loving grandmother and trying to navigate tweendom in an unfamiliar city as she makes new friends like the bossy and opinionated Nancy (Elle Graham), Janie (Amari Price), Gretchen (Katherine Kupferer), as well as Nancy’s sweet, older brother Moose (Aidan Wojtak-Hissong). There’s the requisite “We Must, We Must, We Must Increase Our Busts” scene, though, as Blume noted during the Q&A, she was watching the dailies during filming that day and thought, “My God, that’s NOT how you do it! It was how Kelly had done it” (Craig and her friends had put their fists together in front of their chests). And speaking of breasts, Fortson rises beautifully to the challenge of conveying the abundant awkwardness, even during filming as she had to have her chest strapped down to look flat, making the 90-degree heat of the North Carolina shoot even more uncomfortable. Fortson, natural and completely believable as the inquisitive, , mortified and funny protagonist, is a perfect embodiment of all the ways we’ve imagined her over the decades.
The fashions are maybe a little dated and the girls more naïve and innocent than today’s tweens (too bad that’s changed!), but the themes Blume explored are still timely and relevant in 2023. Talking about getting your period, for instance, should be treated – as Barbara does with Margaret – with gentleness, understanding and openness, and not as a subject to be whispered about (if at all), as legislators in this country are trying to do right now. What would go a long way toward canceling that type of repressive body shaming is for families to see this movie together and talk about it after. Do it for Judy Blume!
Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret is in theatres now.