A Coming-Of-Age Story for Every Generation

Abby Ryder Fortson as Margaret in Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret (via Variety).

The film adaptation of Judy Blume’s groundbreaking, controversial, wonderful middle-grade novel Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret is a coming-of-age revelation. It’s warm and accessible, catering not just to the pre-teen crowd or to the nostalgic masses, but to every single generation of girls who have loved this story into legend.

I, like you, read Margaret as a young Jewish girl wrestling with the big, angry feelings of early adolescence. Like Margaret, I felt like I was asking wise, enormous questions—about life, love, identity, and training bras— without the maturity and lived experience necessary to understand the wise, enormous answers to those questions. The book, and now the film adaptation, capture how that whole time is so shaky: your life changes, and your body changes, and you often feel like there’s no one you can be totally honest with without shame.

This is a movie for young girls, which shouldn’t feel so surprising, but in the current media landscape, it’s almost unique. Rather than condescending to that perspective, Margaret, like the book it’s based on, acknowledges that sixth-grade feelings are among the realest we ever feel. That’s what makes this movie so enjoyable across generational lines (I’m on the Millennial/Gen Z cusp, and my Gen X mom loves it as much as I do): its themes are universal because pre-teen girl feelings are universal. They are not a marketing niche; they are everything.

On top of worrying about boys and boobs and periods, Margaret (Abby Ryder Fortson, in a stunning breakout performance) also struggles to “choose a religion.” Her father (weirdly, and sort of hotly, Uncut Gems director Benny Safdie) is Jewish, her mother (the always-excellent Rachel McAdams) is Christian, and they’ve left it up to her to decide which way she wants to go. I wouldn’t dream of assigning an organized religion to young Margaret, who spends the runtime of this movie finding spiritual meaning in a God she sometimes struggles to see and hear in her relationships with friends and family. But I do think wrestling with God is very Jewish of her, scripturally and culturally. I relate to Margaret’s precocious existential anxiety, as well as her big God question: “Why do I only feel you when I’m alone?”

Something I love about this adaptation is how clearly Margaret’s empathy informs our relationships with the characters whose prayers we aren’t hearing. Her mother, Barbara, struggles to redefine her relationship with herself after being thrust out of a more cosmopolitan existence into the life of a suburban housewife. At the same time, she tries to reestablish contact with her parents, who disowned her for marrying a Jewish man.

We learn along with Barbara that people don’t change without wanting to, and folks who love us conditionally will never fully see us for who we are. Margaret, too, learns that family is what you make it, and that people tied to us by blood won’t always rise to the occasion of lifetime bonds. Margaret also learns that her mother is fallible (Barbara really shouldn’t have brought her Jew-hating parents to meet her daughter, and she understands that by the end of the story), but she shows extraordinary kindness and uncommon maturity responding to Barbara’s sadness and conflict.

Because of the gentle and loving lens Margaret uses to frame all of her relationships, taking people in good faith until the moment they intentionally mislead or mistreat her, we’re able to track coming-of-age stories that unfold in this film long after adolescence—a mother’s, a grandmother’s, a teacher’s, and more. In Margaret’s self-respecting grace, we’re even able to sympathize with overbearing frenemies and classroom outcasts we might have resented or misunderstood in our own sixth-grade moment.

When I got home from the movie, I realized I was lying down in my bed in my Jewish girl apartment in New York City, watching rain fall outside my bedroom window and typing a little note into my phone about what I’d just seen alongside my best friend since I was Margaret’s age. (Pro tip: go see Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret with your best friend, your mom, your grandmother, or all three). I was sitting under a heating pad, trying to combat some icky period symptoms that are totally normal to my 25-year-old self but were, at one point, the biggest news in the world, pain I wore like a weird badge of womanhood and honor.

Margaret spends her sixth-grade year wondering when things will change, when she’ll start to understand herself and her identity, when she’ll learn how to be a good friend, and when people will learn how to be a good friend to her. For young girls engaging with this story for the first time, just hearing those scary questions dignified on the big screen will be revelatory. For me, it was nice to hear them again with some degree of wisdom and distance from the gorgeous headache that is girlhood. In navigating my adult life, I am the embodied answer to Margaret’s excellent questions. So are you. So are we all.

 

Topics: Film, Fiction, Children
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How to cite this page

Leiber, Sarah Jae. "A Coming-Of-Age Story for Every Generation." 4 May 2023. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on April 13, 2024) <http://jwa.org/blog/film-captures-gorgeous-headache-girlhood>.