Kelly Fremon Craig’s The Edge of Seventeen is one of my favorite coming of age films ever made. The striking authenticity of capturing the way you feel at that age – like nothing you can do is right, and the scariest thing in the world is the idea of having to live with yourself for the rest of your life. The overall way it captures little-discussed nuances of adolescence struck me as deeply personal and yet universal to just about any experience. And she’s about the only person who could have adapted Judy Blume’s iconic novel Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.
Enter the world of Margaret (Abby Ryder Fortson), a well-adjusted 11-year-old girl living with her parents (Rachel McAdams and Bennie Safdie) in New York City. She’s happy there, she spends a lot of time with her super cool grandmother (Kathy Bates) who takes her to plays and museums and loves spending time with her. One day, when her parents announce they’re leaving New York because her father got a promotion moving them to New Jersey, Margaret’s world is flipped upside down. Once she gets there, she becomes immediate friends with a neighbor and her friend group. But she’s also questioning everything going on in life, questioning her religion, having been raised consciously without it, and overall questioning her place in the world, and the type of young lady she’ll one day become.
This all may sound very conceptual and like a bit of a drag, but I promise Margaret is a wonderful film, in big and small ways.On paper, it’s a very traditional coming of age story. But it’s about what happens when this character starts to ask big questions. Questions about religion, questions about what kind of person she’ll become, questions about the meaning of life in general. And that’s all very heady and it’s a lot for a 105-minute long film to wrap its arms around. And yet writer/director Kelly Fremon Craig, again, makes every bit of this story feel poignant, lived-in, genuine and universal. Margaret’s experience is extremely specific, and yet Margaret is you, Margaret is me, Margaret is everyone.
Rachel McAdams is doing some of the best work of her career, playing a character that could very easily be nothing. Margaret’s mother Barbara gave up her job in the move to New Jersey to be a housewife, and she’s not sure why. But she’s trying so hard to do the best by everyone in her life. She’s got unexamined issues with her own parents that come boiling to the surface later on in the film. Benny Safdie as Herb, the family patriarch is charming, but he’s a little beside the point.
Kathy Bates has a very dishy supporting role as Sylvia, Herb’s mother, and Margaret’s grandmother. She’s lively and vivacious and a total hoot. She may be a bit overbearing in the way all parents and grandparents are, but she never condescends to Margaret and treats her like a grown-up. She reminded me a lot of my own grandmother actually, and I appreciated that. The child actors (Elle Graham, Amari Alexis Price, and Katherine Mallen Kupferer) are all doing pretty fantastic work as well. All of them manage to avoid falling into the child-actor traps that often annoy me in lesser movies.
There’s a strong attention to detail in the craft here. The houses feel a lot like suburban houses from that era. You can kind of feel the musty air in the houses and feel the shag carpeting. Barbara has trouble designing their new home and there’s a scene in a furniture store with a lot of décor that feels very much of the moment in 1970. The set design doesn’t call attention to itself, but everything has that gauzy, hazy feeling of a memory – a very specific time in history fondly remembered.
Overall, I would say Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. succeeds in just about every way, partially due to Fremon-Craig’s sensitive screenplay and empathetic direction, but also largely due to Abby Ryder Fortson’s outstanding debut leading performance. It couldn’t have been easy to adapt this iconic 50-year-old piece of literature, but Kelly Fremon-Craig makes it all feels so brazenly authentic, and it’s that authenticity that allows this film to stand on its own, apart from the source material.