Growing Pains

Kelly Fremon Craig’s new coming-of-age movie provides fresh take on the genre, tackles religion, puberty


The AMC theater buzzed with eager movie-goers May 2, 2023. Tickets to the cult-favorite “Super Mario Bros. Movie” were sold out, and the “Air” movie was packed as well, but hidden behind these blockbuster titles stood the unassuming yet brightly colored poster of a confused-looking twelve year old girl. It was this hidden gem that provided the most unique entertainment experience.  

The adaptation of one of Judy Blume’s most beloved books, “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” was released in theaters April 28, 2023 and is the second movie from director Kelly Fremon Craig. Craig’s directorial debut in 2017 “The Edge of Seventeen” landed her an Oklahoma Film Critics Circle Awards nomination for Best First Film and a Directors Guild of America nomination for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in First-Time Feature Film. With such prized accolades, “Are You There God?” was highly anticipated by Craig’s fans. The story revolves around 11 year old Margaret Simon, who moves from her home in New York City to the suburbs of New Jersey with mom Barbara and dad Herb. Placed in an entirely new environment for sixth grade, Margaret is forced to navigate not only the uncomfortable and confusing changes of puberty but most significantly with the complicated issue of religion. Having a Christian mother and Jewish father, Margaret has grown up without a religion, with her parents wanting her to choose a religion for herself as she gets older. This search for faith becomes a central plot point and gives the film its title. Based on the diary-entry style of Blume’s book, the movie features voice-overs of Margaret’s internal dialogue as she prays to God and questions various aspects of both her faith, her family, and her friends throughout the school year. 

With the premier of this film, it became clear that Craig prioritizes quality over quantity in her directorial work. Craig not only acquired A-list talent for the project such as Rachel McAdams and Kathy Bates, but also booked emerging talent, most notably young actress Abby Ryder Fortson (playing the films’ titular character) who, although not a newbie to the film industry, having played Paul Rudd’s on-screen daughter in Marvel’s “Ant-Man” continued to stun with her ability to hold her own alongside established actors and actresses. Further, the source material was not a simple one for Craig to work with, as the original novel has become a highly-controversial book in schools around the U.S. Many movements have been made by parents and politicians since it was published in 1970 to remove it from school libraries due to its candid comments on menstruation and puberty as well as its complex central theme of religion. However, the controversial themes didn’t stop critics from awarding the film an exemplary rating of 99% on Rotten Tomatoes and a 7.9 out of 10 on IMDB. 

A 99% on Rotten Tomatoes is an incredibly high score for a movie to earn, but in this case “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” thoroughly earned it, and it was its controversial conversations on religion and puberty that made it such a brilliant film for me. Not having grown up with Judy Blume’s books, I was initially skeptical of the film, expecting it to be a classic, cheesy attempt at a heartwarming coming-of-age film meant to mainly entertain nostalgic parents. However, this could not have been further from the truth. Unlike the glossy, family-friendly way many other movies in the genre cover growing up, Craig wasn’t afraid to tackle the weirdness and awkwardness of puberty. The movie featured scenes so honest that viewers walked away with the strong sense of second-hand embarrassment that first-time bra shopping experiences really feel like, instead of being fed another lighthearted makeover montage with background music that could’ve been taken from an IMovie template. This was one of my favorite parts of the movie because growing up and maturing weren’t romanticized. The film didn’t attempt to make viewers reminisce on the good-old-days of childhood. The movie said ‘look, middle school was awkward and embarrassing and gross and no one really wants to relive that.’ Also, the movie further encompassed multiple experiences with puberty by not just relying on the stereotype of the awkward late-bloomer, but by also highlighting the struggles and alienation that often befalls early-bloomers. Even further, the movie not only touched on the difficulty of change for young girls, but just for women and people in general, as three generations of Simon women had to learn to cope with the change that came from moving and with the changing dynamics between them as all three women grew. This honest reflection of the average person’s tween experience was refreshing. Continuing with the theme of representing authentic experiences, seeing religion tackled in a film with so young a protagonist was also inspiring. Struggling with faith is usually something Hollywood reserves for mature characters, but religion has played a key role in many real people’s childhoods, and “Are You There God” was one of the first movies I’ve seen that represents this theme through the eyes of a young girl. Even more brilliant and unique (spoiler alert) I loved how at the movie’s conclusion Craig didn’t have Margaret make a choice between Judaism or Christianity, leaving her future with her faith ambiguous and up for the viewers’ interpretations. Another ambiguous ending was the continued estranged relationship between Barbara and her highly Christian parents who disapproved of their daughter marrying outside of their faith. Although in most other children’s movies the parents and daughter would have worked out their difficulties, that was not the case in “Are You There God?” showing more realistically that some family rifts are too deep to heal with just one attempt at reconciliation (spoilers done).

 Although the film’s box-office sales are getting shadowed by more mainstream attractions like the eagerly awaited “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3”, its cinematic accomplishments are not going unnoticed by Blume and Craig’s fans alike. While I understand the fun of movies like “Guardians” and “Super Mario Bros.” and the exciting atmosphere of these packed screenings, if you find yourself wanting some extra breathing room at the movies, deciding to head into the quieter theater for a screening of “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” is something you won’t regret.