Movie review: ‘Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret’ is nostalgic for childhoods past

By Jillian Cheney

Religion Unplugged

Judy Blume’s breakout novel, published in 1970, follows an 11-year-old named Margaret through her family’s move from New York City to the Jersey suburbs and her sixth grade school year. 

Margaret’s dad is Jewish and her mom is Christian, but they’ve chosen to raise her without a religion. She still has a relationship with God, and during this year she explores her parents’ religions. She also prays regularly, and she always begins the same way: “Are you there, God? It’s me, Margaret.”

A movie adaptation of the novel has been highly anticipated by many, and as of April 28 those dreams will come true.

The movie, which follows the same plot, is meant to be a love letter to the iconic book as well as an inspiring coming of age story, something that will introduce a new generation to the woes and triumphs of Margaret Simon while reminding grown-up fans about their own childhoods and their experience with Blume’s work. 

It’s successful at times. Blume even said on the TODAY show that the movie is better than her book. In particular, she said, the screenplay allows for the expansion of Margaret’s mom, exploring her experience as a woman nearly as much as the movie does Margaret’s. 

It’s also a heartfelt portrait of girlhood in all its ups and downs: big moves, family struggles, friendships, first crushes, first bras, school projects, puberty, religion and self-discovery. That it addresses any of these things at all is worth celebrating, and it carries a certain timelessness in the way it explores the growing pains of getting older. 

Ultimately, however, it’s a product of its 53-year-old source material. The movie is meaningful and progressive in all the ways it was in 1970, for better or worse — and it’s more useful as a vehicle for nostalgia than a fresh perspective on anything. 

When it came out, and particularly in the 1980s, the book faced bans and other challenges for the way it straightforwardly addresses menstruation and other aspects of female puberty. 

It’s something Margaret and her friends obsess over. They’re jealous of the girls who got them early, in competition with each other about whose will come first. They buy pads months before they’re necessary from a gangly teenager at the local grocery. 

A major conflict, in fact, arises when Margaret’s friend Nancy claims she got her period, only for Margaret to find out months later that she lied about it. 

That periods have a place in the movie is huge, as conversations about periods and puberty are still just as necessary now as they were in 1970 — and they aren’t common in modern books and movies, particularly in the young adult fiction genre. 

It’s just that, like the book, the “Margaret” movie is set in 1970 — so the sanitary napkins she buys have long since been adhesive pads. This language was changed in later editions of the book to reflect the standard, but the movie is intentionally old-fashioned. 

So where a preteen girl might connect with the fear, joy, jealousy and cramping that arises with her first period, it’s less likely that she’ll connect with the actual truth of the thing. Its benefit is for women who grew up using sanitary napkins, who will look back on those feelings and products with nostalgia specific to their generation. 

It’s not so much the story’s fault that it’s set in a certain time period — it’s just that the world, in many ways, is glaringly different. Girls today, or even a decade ago, don’t smuggle anatomy textbooks over to a friend’s house to self-administer sex-ed and giggle about the strange parts of the human body. Now all that (and unimaginably more, beyond what’s good or fun) is available online. 

Margaret and her friends sneak a copy of her dad’s Playboy to fawn over the models inside and imagine what they’ll look like when they’re older. That very experience is nearly impossible to recreate today: Playboy stopped printing physical magazines in 2020. 

It also feels somewhat elementary that the movie’s other main conflict boils down to differences between Christianity and Judaism — two religions so similar that they’re based on the same religious text.

Those disagreements, plus a string of bad days in Margaret’s life, cause her to pronounce after the end of a large and uncomfortable family dinner that she no longer believes in God. Its staying power is in reinforcing the idea that doctrine wars always push people away from God rather than bring them closer, and it extrapolates on the pain of familial conflict — which is difficult no matter the cause. 

But the stakes here are low and hyper-specific to a certain type of person and family. 

It’s strange for a movie to be so timeless and so out-of-touch at the same time; in “Margaret,” it results in a product that’s a little shallow. 

While it produces many of the feelings that will always exist around growing up, it fails to recognize that growing up now is just inherently more complex than it was 50 years ago, and it fails to provide any real answers for the complex feelings it creates.

Margaret’s biggest conflict with Nancy is left largely unresolved, and her relationship with God is fixed in a snap when she finally does get her period — something that at least makes sense for an 11-year-old, even if it’s not quite theologically sound.

If the goal is to introduce Blume’s story to a younger audience in a way that will be as meaningful as it is to women who first read the book, then it’s missing the mark. But it’s sure to find its home with fans of the book and those who are reminded of their own childhoods. That fond, if not a little embarrassed, remembrance is what carries “Margaret” all the way through.  

Jillian Cheney is Religion Unplugged’s senior culture correspondent. She writes about film, TV, music, art, books and more. Find her on Twitter @_jilliancheney.

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