Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret review: One of America’s most banned books is now a tender movie

Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret always felt a little too precious for the big screen. Judy Blume’s tale of faith and puberty and one girl’s clumsy, earnest attempts to make peace with both was a bestseller in 1970 and one of the most banned books in America for the decades that came after. It was open and candid about things that adults rarely bothered to explain to their daughters; a reassuring ally in many a childhood over the past five decades.

Blume had resisted all attempts to bring Are You There God? to the big screen. That changed after a bid from producer James L Brooks – whose legacy of wholesome Americana extends from The Mary Tyler Moore Show to The Simpsons – and director Kelly Fremon Craig. Blume was right to wait. As this tender, faithful adaptation shows, her story couldn’t have been entrusted into more steady hands.

Margaret (Abby Ryder Fortson), who’s 11 years old, returns from summer camp to learn that her parents, Barbara (Rachel McAdams) and Herb (Benny Safdie), have resolved to pack up and relocate the family from New York City to the New Jersey suburb. She’s desperate to fit in, as quickly as possible, and so finds herself enmeshed in a secret club run by the performatively haughty Nancy (Elle Graham), and her minions Gretchen (Katherine Mallen Kupferer) and Janie (Amari Alexis Price).

These kids are at the exact age, and of the precise mentality, where their self-worth is wholly determined by how far they’ve torpedoed down the path of puberty. Their friendships are bound by cultish rules: no socks can be worn, but bras are a must. All crushes must be catalogued and contrasted. And, most importantly, it’s vital they all inform each other when they first get their period.

Fremon Craig, of course, isn’t speaking to quite the same audience as Blume was. Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret is now no longer a story to be devoured in private communion between author and reader, but to be shared between families and friends, or strangers in a darkened auditorium. Margaret’s once-contemporary surroundings are now steeped in sweet, mellow nostalgia – of Melmac dishware, canned mushroom soup splurted onto pot roasts, and buckled mary janes – and a silent recognition of the storytellers who have carried Blume’s legacy onwards into the current era. It’s hard to watch Are You There God? and not think of Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade (2018), or even Fremon Craig’s own The Edge of Seventeen (2016).

And so, here, the director’s camera allows a little more space for Barbara, expanding the boundaries of Blume’s original narrative. Yes, this film is about a girl, but it’s also about a woman robbed of the girl she once was. Margaret was brought up without a religion – her mother is Christian and her father is Jewish, but Barbara’s ultra-devout parents disowned the couple purely because of their inter-faith marriage. Barbara fears, most of all, that her daughter will inherit those scars. It’s a phenomenal performance from McAdams, subtle and gentle in its heartbreak.

Much has changed since Blume first published her work. And, also, very little: women are still made to feel alienated from their own bodies, children are barely treated as sentient beings, and menstruation continues to be treated as some monstrous taboo. Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret remains a radical act of kindness.

Dir: Kelly Fremon Craig. Starring: Rachel McAdams, Abby Ryder Fortson, Elle Graham, Benny Safdie, Kathy Bates. PG, 106 minutes.

‘Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret’ is in cinemas from 19 May