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In 'Are You There, God?' Margaret's story isn't universal — and that's OK

Rachel McAdams as Barbara Simon and Abby Ryder Fortson as Margaret Simon in <em>Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret.</em>
Dana Hawley
/
Lionsgate
Rachel McAdams as Barbara Simon and Abby Ryder Fortson as Margaret Simon in Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret.

When the lights go down on the new adaptation of Judy Blume's middle-grade classic Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret, one of the first things you see is a note about the year in which the film is set: "1970." That's the year the book came out, too, so the film leaves the story there, in its moment.

It's very easy to imagine Margaret updated for 2023: Margaret with a smartphone, Margaret with the ability to look things up on Wikipedia, Margaret in a contemporary fandom or battling a contemporary moral panic. That's what you would do if you wanted to treat the book as a "universal story," one that every girl in every era can relate to, with the trimmings changed to match the time, the place, the pop-culture references.

But it isn't that, at all. Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret may address topics that are familiar to a lot of kids (and former kids): puberty, new friends, issues with family and exploring religion. But respecting its impact as a classic means also recognizing its specificity — that many stories are relatable, but none are universal. This is the story of one girl, at one moment, with one group of friends, who experiences early adolescence in a way particular to her. And that's what makes it compelling.

Obviously, lots of kids still wait for their periods and try out bras and question their spirituality, but exactly what that experience looks like is influenced by all kinds of things. It matters what religion the kid is being raised in and what religion the parents were raised in. It matters what their economic status is, what kind of neighborhood they live in, what their family structure is, and what race they and the people around them are, not to mention the particular personality of the individual kid. There is no universal puberty story, no one vision of what getting your period for the first time is like. In fact, after I watched the scene in which Margaret gets hers, I turned to the friend next to me and said, "I did ... not have that experience."

Leaving the story in 1970 also provides opportunities to expand on the book without displacing Margaret from her environment. In the film, the story of Margaret's mother Barbara, beautifully played by Rachel McAdams, is rounded out to explore the ways that in 1970, many adult women's lives were just as much in flux as their daughters'. Barbara, who has a loving and happy marriage to Herb (Benny Safdie), is newly a stay-at-home mom. She's throwing herself into the PTA and the perfecting of her house, seeing the idea of not "having to" work outside the home as a luxury. But she becomes uncertain about what's a luxury and what's a sacrifice, and it creates a resonant parallel between her and her searching, curious daughter. There's a wonderful scene late in the film in which the two sit on the sofa together, wrapped in each other's arms, exchanging few words, just sharing the experience of their lives being complicated and painful. Committing to the book's original moment doesn't make the film feel dated; it makes it feel lived-in by all of its characters.

The choice of setting is consistent with the restraint about the telling of this story that writer and director Kelly Fremon Craig gets just right across the board. Margaret is set in 1970, but gently, without distracting levels of period (yes, yes) detail. Margaret's parents have their own distinct identities without being types. Kathy Bates, as Margaret's grandmother and Herb's mother, is a lively and very funny (though flawed) grandmother, but she's never an over-the-top Wacky Grandma. The movie goes easy on a lot of the elements Fremon Craig could have dialed up, and it's to the story's benefit.

This is just Margaret's story. She's about to turn 12 in 1970, and these are her parents and friends. This is her experience of claiming her relationship with God, regardless of her attachment to any particular organized religion. This is her first time buying a bra, this is her first time being kissed by a boy, and this is how it feels to her when she realizes she has hurt someone's feelings. She is not every girl, she is just Margaret, talking to God.

This piece also appeared in NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour newsletter. Sign up for the newsletter so you don't miss the next one, plus get weekly recommendations about what's making us happy.

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Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.