It is 1970 and the almost-12-year-old Margaret Simon returns from summer camp to boxes strewn about her family’s jammed New York City apartment. Why? Because she and her parents are moving to New Jersey, her grandmother blurts out before her folks can ease their only child into the news. And so begins the yearlong adventure at the heart of this pitch-perfect adaptation of the author Judy Blume’s “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.”
The director-writer Kelly Fremon Craig’s rendering of the book about puberty, family and nascent spirituality offers lessons in how a cherished object, when treated with tender and thoughtful regard, needn’t turn precious. It doesn’t hurt that Craig and the producer James L. Brooks assembled a cast that delivers the joys and blunders waiting at the edge of childhood but also touches on the pangs of other kinds of growing up. Rachel McAdams and Benny Safdie portray Margaret’s youthful parents, Barbara and Herb. Kathy Bates is Margaret’s paternal grandmother, Sylvia, of the aforementioned blurt.
But it is Abby Ryder Fortson who carries the day, or rather the school year. In her face, Margaret’s glimmers of dawning self-awareness and hurt ring true. From the moment the soon-to-be sixth grader utters the movie’s first prayer — which ends with the entreaty, “Please don’t let New Jersey be too horrible” — Fortson’s Margaret proves to be a protagonist who is as incidentally funny as she is authentic.
Margaret’s ability to register hope and skepticism gets only more endearing when she opens the door to her Mockingbird Lane neighbor and new classmate, Nancy Wheeler (Elle Graham). In short order, Nancy invites Margaret over to her house and into her secret club. At the Wheeler home, Margaret also meets a friend of Nancy’s brother: the 14-year-old Moose (Aidan Wojtak-Hissong), who stays on the periphery of the action, representing ever so gently the ickiness but also the allure of boys.
Filling out their gang of four are the open-faced and openhearted Janie Loomis (Amari Price) and the wavy-haired, bespectacled Gretchen Potter (Katherine Kupferer). Together they will compare notes on boys they like, chant a famous mammary mantra, peek at a Playboy and peruse an anatomy book’s illustration of male genitals. But most of all, they’ll mildly obsess over (and maybe even fib about) which one of them will be the first to menstruate.
Not horrible at all, the movie’s Farbrook, N.J., has a halcyon glaze. As in the book, published in 1970, the issues challenging the United States at the time lie beyond the story’s frame. (Though it’s fun thinking of Blume’s novel as the little sister of another iconic book from the same year: the women’s health manual “Our Bodies, Ourselves.”) If the era’s edges are softened, it’s to make way for something differently roiling — as the narrator of a sex-education film will intone later in the movie, “our changing bodies.”
With subtlety, Craig breaks from the novel’s sweet-natured, first-person narration and transforms it into an overall aura. “Are You There God” becomes a coming-of-age saga for three generations of Simon women. McAdams makes quietly clear Barbara Simon isn’t entirely comfortable in her role as suburban mom. Bates’s Sylvia will be nudged to expand her own horizons after Margaret, her little best friend, moves.
Craig also broadens the novel’s reach. Margaret’s teacher, Mr. Benedict, is Black. (So is Janie Loomis.) Echo Kellum is understatedly winning as the new but sensitive sixth-grade teacher who picks up on Margaret’s response to a questionnaire — “I hate religious holidays” — and turns it into a yearlong assignment. Puberty provides most of the movie’s outright and tender comedy. But its depths are captured in Margaret’s seeking, in the notion that her No. 1 interlocutor might be a God she’s not even sure exists.
If Barbara handles her daughter’s request for a bra with respectful if amused aplomb, she’s thrown by Margaret’s plan to go to “temple” with Sylvia. (Herb’s even-tempered response: “You know what got me off of temple? Going to temple.”) Barbara and Herb are nonreligious. In the novel, Margaret already knows the reasons for her mom’s estrangement from her own parents: They are Christian. Herb is Jewish. Never the twain shall marry. The writer-director has taken that back story and cast it into a mother-and-daughter revelation and one of the film’s most commanding scenes.
That puberty and a nascent spiritual quest might begin in earnest at approximately the same time turns out to be one of the movie’s (and its source’s) most radical charms.
Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.
Rated PG-13 for themes involving sexual education and some suggestive material. Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes. In theaters.