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‘Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret’ is a heaven-sent version of Judy Blume’s book


Review by Brian Lowry, CNN

“Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” is a classic coming-of-age tale, but the Judy Blume book receives the ageless treatment it deserves in a movie that captures the 1970 vibe (starting with the soundtrack) while completely transcending it. Sweet, charming and thoughtful, this theatrical release will likely land on a streaming service sooner than later, but it appears destined to have a very, very long shelf life.

Writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig’s film debut, “The Edge of Seventeen,” turned out to be a terrific training ground for this tween version of youthful angst, and a protagonist who — having been raised without any religion by her Christian mom (Rachel McAdams) and Jewish dad (Benny Safdie) — seeks help from God when the family abruptly decides to relocate from New York to New Jersey.

“Don’t let New Jersey be too horrible,” Margaret (Abby Ryder Fortson, previously featured in “Ant-Man and the Wasp,” giving a giant-sized performance) pleads before embarking on the move, which, among other things, greatly upsets her paternal grandmother (Kathy Bates, yet again guilty of scene-stealing larceny).

Beyond leaving her school and friends behind, Margaret enters this strange new suburban world at a critical phase in her life, falling into the circle of a domineering girl, Nancy (Elle Graham), whose prodding makes Margaret even more obsessed with the vagaries of puberty. That isn’t helped when Nancy coaxes her to steal her dad’s Playboy, fueling anxieties about a body that isn’t developing at the rate she wishes.

“Are You There God?” could easily drift into after-school special territory, but it has more edge than that. For starters, Margaret’s exploration of religion — which drove a wedge between her mom, Barbara, and her parents — helps elevate it, as does the parallel plot about Barbara trying to fit in among the PTA mothers and fretting about her domestic skills.

While the songs and styles set the period mood, the subject matter possesses a universal and timeless quality, from the awkwardness of watching sex-education videos to the discomfort associated with that first crush.

Produced by James L. Brooks’ company, which has a long association with these kind of character-driven films, “Are You There God?” feels like a throwback to another era of entertainment as well. Such movies have struggled of late at the box office, and this certainly isn’t the kind of fare that tends to cause people to rush out to theaters these days (although mothers and daughters looking for quality bonding time, in particular, could do a whole lot worse).

Still, despite all her tween misery, “Margaret” should make some streaming service very happy. Because for an audience seeking something that doesn’t speak down to kids, or anyone who can remember being one, “Are You There God?” addresses youthful preoccupations in a refreshingly relatable manner that feels almost heaven-sent.

“Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” premieres April 28 in US theaters. It’s rated PG-13.

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