(OSV News) – Since its publication in 1970, Judy Blume’s novel for adolescents “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” has won widespread popularity among readers in its targeted demographic and garnered critical plaudits. Yet the book has also sparked controversy due to its frank treatment of subjects some consider off-limits for kids.
While the era of avocado-colored appliances may seem like an age of innocence compared to the pronoun-obsessed present, parents may still be doubtful about Blume’s work and therefore about writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig’s eponymous adaptation (Lionsgate). Although the film is a generally upbeat affair, such caution is not entirely unwarranted.
Viewers will, at least, be unanimous in sympathizing with the plight of sixth grader Margaret Simon (Abby Ryder Fortson). Returning from a happy season at her New England summer camp, Margaret is confronted with the unexpected news that her family is moving from the New York City apartment in which she has always lived to a New Jersey suburb.
With no say in the matter, Margaret reluctantly adjusts to a new hometown, school and set of friends. Things get off to a better-than-expected start, however, when she’s quickly recruited into a small clique led by her domineering peer and classmate, Nancy Wheeler (Elle Graham).
With the help of her caring folks, mom Barbara (Rachel McAdams) and dad Herb (Benny Safdie), Margaret also tries to cope with the sudden absence of her formerly nearby paternal grandmother and closest confidante, Sylvia (Kathy Bates). Barbara, meanwhile, joins the local PTA over which Nancy’s equally overbearing mother, Jan (Kate MacCluggage), presides.
Despite being raised with no religion due to the family conflicts that resulted from Barbara and Herb’s interfaith marriage, Margaret nurtures a secret, informal prayer life (as indicated in the title). Through it, she seeks divine assistance not only with the outward changes she is experiencing but with the challenges of puberty as well.
Margaret also sets off on an odyssey of creedal experimentation. Sylvia brings her to Temple, her African American pal Janie Loomis (Amari Price) exposes her to lively Pentecostal-style worship and she accompanies Nancy to a more restrained mainstream-Protestant Christmas service.
In addition, Margaret is briefly exposed to the Catholic faith of her ostracized schoolmate Laura Danker (Isol Young). Feeling guilty over her treatment of Laura, Margaret has a brief encounter with a priest in a confessional. But nothing substantive comes of their exchange before she runs off in confusion. So her sampling of the devotional smorgasbord continues.
There’s plenty of clever comedy in this wry coming-of-age tale. Yet its humorously blunt treatment of anatomical and biological development, together with the narrative’s apparent favoring of do-it-yourself spirituality over either Judaism or Christianity as a formal affiliation make this dicey material for unguided youngsters.
On the other hand, the picture could serve as a good starting point for an intergenerational discussion. One of the script’s major themes is Margaret’s sense of isolation as she struggles both with the alterations natural to her age and with her attempts to relate to the deity. Providing youthful moviegoers with counsel on such topics could prevent them from feeling equally adrift.
The film contains mature themes, including teen sensuality and menstruation, occasional sexual references, a couple of profanities and numerous milder oaths. The OSV News classification is A-III – adults. The Motion Picture Association rating is PG-13 – parents strongly cautioned. Some material may not be suitable for children.