Adapted from Judy Bloom’s perennial bestseller, writer and director Kelly Fremon Craig’s second feature (following 2016’s The Edge of Seventeen) is an unassuming masterpiece. It is an astoundingly brilliant adaptation, one defined by smart choices throughout that elevate the material. It also works independently of this, as a great film in its own right. The characters first approach, and the meticulous realisation of a compelling reality, makes it deeply resonant and wholly authentic. And where character leads, themes will follow. Though, as the title implies, there is a primary theme of religion, it doesn’t preach. The titular Margaret (Abby Ryder Fortson) may speak directly to God but the film is more deft with its ideas.
Coming of age is a crowded genre marked by typicality and repetitions. This film ticks the boxes you want but still manages to feel special. It stems from the writing, a simple tale of an eleven-year-old girl, from New York, forced to live in New Jersey and start a ‘new life’ — away from friends and her beloved grandmother (Kathy Bates). Her father (Benny Safdie) has a new job and now they can afford a house, and this new position also means that her mother (Rachel McAdams) doesn’t have to work anymore, and can spend more time with Margaret. It follows an expected path from here — it is adapting a very known novel, after all — as Margaret becomes part of a friend group led by (the rather intense) Nancy (Elle Graham), and they start to discover boys, periods and other markers of what they see as womanhood and adulthood. The frankness, and the realism of it, separate it from the wider genre (certainly many of its more conventional entries). It mostly works, though, because it’s just really good.
At so many points, the feeling is that ‘there’s a worse version of this film that would do X’. It is such a stunningly understated script that thrives off of showing where lesser films would merely tell. Large moments exist in the background and fill the film with life. We strictly follow Margaret, and she’s a wonderful presence (Abby Ryder Fortson providing an incredible performance), but in the background are characters with rich exterior and interior lives. Her mother, for example, goes through a narrative arc that could be a film: giving up work to become the idea of a mother and wrestling with whether she fits into that or not. This just happens, though, it exists through gestures and details that intersect with Margaret’s story. A worse film would have a monologue or an explanatory line, this never does. Later on in the film, a shocking (in the context of the story) letter is received. One of the barbs in it is how Margaret’s dad isn’t even mentioned, a detail that says a lot about who sent it and what the message reveals in spite of the sentiments it declares. In the book, Margaret — in narration — comments on her father’s absence from the letter. The film lets it be, it is a resonant background detail that matters because you notice it. And if you don’t pick up on it, it doesn’t matter. It is full of these moments (where a worse film would take a more direct path). Why this is so affecting is because you are able to glean reality and character from it. For example, just through how the characters interact, you realise how close Margaret and one of her friends, Janie (Amari Alexis Price) are. Life is full of stories but they flow naturally; this film moves in the same way.
It is an important film, also. Every detail is so well observed that it becomes such an important treatise on girlhood, womanhood, parenthood. Eventually just humanity. By having such real and brilliantly drawn characters, it just speaks with complete clarity to the heart of the human experience. This is down to structure, though. It is interesting that a lot of the novel is changed. Moments are slightly shifted around, or things are taken away or added to. Every alteration is utterly brilliant; this is an adaptation that finds the gold in the novel and then polishes it up. Every shift refigures a moment to make it as good as it could have been, or takes advantage of hindsight to make things smoother or more evocative. It feels more literary than the book itself, a richer text brimming with background detail. The relatively linear and focused tale from Bloom is made into a broad tapestry by Craig.
It also works because it is funny. The comedic timing has the preciseness, the mannered feel, of the work of Wes Anderson or Whit Stillman. It is incredibly witty and evoked through astute direction. It doesn’t seem like a showy film but that is because it makes brilliance seem effortless. Direction is confident, beautifully constructed scenes that don’t shout about their excellence, they just naturally display it. The look of the film is sumptuous, a wonderful realisation of the period setting (the ’70s). Camerawork is handsome but the real strength is that it’s always in the right place, facilitating a heavily curated dance that is precise to the point of feeling spontaneous. It is just very real and wholly immersive. The characters are appealing, mostly because they are funny. It is a humour that intertwines with other emotions, making moments of melancholy reach deeper and allowing the film to make you feel all emotions that exist. It is an affirming watch.
Where a film like Little Women (2019) gets so much (very deserved) plaudits, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret is its unassuming equal. The scope is smaller but both are so well put together, so astutely observed. Both are stunning acts of adaptation, finding the best parts of their respective books, books that loom large in the cultural consciousness — and they also manage to put that cultural impact on screen. This film just does this all more quietly. It is so affecting, an accessible work that will play to all ages — and that will speak differently. Perhaps its real comparison point is something like Ozu, a richly textured work about families and the societal structures they live in. A film that gives so much room for the viewer, is so subtle and contains such rich meaning.