Kelly Fremon Craig’s adaptation of Judy Blume’s iconic 1970 children’s novel Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret finally hit theaters yesterday, and it did so sporting a sterling 99% on Rotten Tomatoes (with a 96% Audience Score), an 86 on Metacritic (making it the seventh highest rated movie of 2023 so far and giving it a higher Metascore than 20 of the last 29 Best Picture nominees), and now, a cool A CinemaScore to boot. By all accounts, its an unmitigated creative and critical triumph, and though its commercial prospects aren’t the most promising at the moment (unfortunately only debuting with around $6 million at the box office this weekend), we’ve been quickly moving into an era of awards prognostication where box office helps more than it hurts – especially when we’re talking about a title as beloved overall as Margaret is.
All of this is to say… is Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret one of our first bonafide awards contenders of 2023? Thus far, much of that conversation has centered around festival hits A24’s Past Lives, Focus Features’ A Thousand and One, and Amazon Studios’ Air, but Margaret has arrived with just as much acclaim and has the benefit of being the first adaptation of one of the most well-known and celebrated novels of all-time, giving it immense attention right out of the gate (and it helps that its a near-perfect adaptation at that, too). Some will balk at the idea of a “YA adaptation” becoming a major Oscar contender, but to that I would say, “have you actually seen this movie?” Many, like myself, knew writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig was the real deal seven years ago after the release of her utterly exceptional The Edge of Seventeen, which became an instant coming-of-age classic for its honest (and hysterical) look at the female adolescence and Hailee Steinfeld’s admirably authentic lead performance. But with Margaret, she proves once and for all that she was no “one hit wonder.”
Imaging following a seven-year absence from the silver screen and choosing to adapt one of the most acclaimed novels ever written as your comeback project? It takes real guts – and talent – to take that task on, and yet, Craig makes it look like child’s play ultimately, re-sharing the story we already all know and love but expanding on it with new emotionally effective flourishes and additionally underscoring the themes that have become (unfortunately) even more maddeningly relevant today, instead of remaining problems of the past. Few are able to treat this subject matter – an adolescent girl navigating her burgeoning sexuality socially and physically – with the sincerity it deserves without ever simultaneously treading into saccharine territory, but Craig never loses sight of the knowing, sharp-witted comedy that elevates her coming-of-age odysseys over others and always remains committed to stark honesty as opposed to “sugarcoating” above all else, refusing to pull her punches when it comes to the most meaningful revelations about personal (and pubertal) growth.
In a time in which social and political forces are still trying to work against women at every second to rob us of our rights to control and understand our bodies (and are somehow stronger than they’ve been in decades), a movie like Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret is more essential than ever, and especially an adaptation this well-executed. Sure, it’s a pretty simple story at the end of the day. But it displays its radical, subversive spirit simply by treating its female protagonists – and its female viewers – like real, multidimensional people with valid thoughts and feelings worth exploring and discussing instead of hiding away in shame. It’s as influential and successful a guide to girls in search of the answers to the anxieties of adolescence as the novel was, and remains true to Blume’s original vision while giving the story a new style and soul all the same, and that’s all Craig. In my mind, she already should’ve been an Oscar nominee for Best Original Screenplay for The Edge of Seventeen. But I can forgive The Academy if they finally play catch-up next year and honor her in Best Adapted Screenplay for pulling off the impossible and not just finally making Margaret into a movie, but a mightily moving and endlessly entertaining coming-of-age masterwork at that.
Another area where Craig’s adaptation excels is in adding to the character arc of Margaret’s mother Barbara (played by a ravishing Rachel McAdams), which runs alongside Margaret’s as an example of the never-ending evolution of a woman’s sense of self as Barbara struggles to balance the duties of a housewife with her own personal pursuits, straining to maintain the interests that make her who she is while also meeting society’s expectations of a wife and mother. The arc is already so tenderly texturized from the start – and perfectly positioned to complement Margaret’s changing identity – but McAdams also brings her all to it and bolsters it even further, delivering one of the best performances of her career. That’s high praise (especially for the woman that’s given us timeless comedic turns in films like Mean Girls and Game Night and of course her immensely affecting Oscar-nominated work in 2015’s Spotlight), but it’s deserved. Her delicate, down-to-earth depiction of “the modern mother” and how she navigates both her developing relationship with her aging daughter and additional religious turmoil and trauma with her prejudiced parents is realistically subtle but sneakily stirring all the same, and you’ll walk away unable to shake the power of her performance.
McAdams is far from the only actor to exceed expectations in this enchanting ensemble – lead Abby Ryder Fortson is a surefire star from her first scene (and I know she’ll be a standout in the “Young Actor/Actress” categories this awards season, though I’d like a Golden Globe Best Actress in a Comedy/Musical nod as well in a just world, a la Elsie Fisher in 2018’s Eighth Grade) and Oscar winner Kathy Bates is a side-splitting supporting standout as Margaret’s gregarious grandmother Sylvia – but she’s by far and away the MVP for my money, and I’d love for her and Craig to be a package deal at the Oscars (with a Picture push to follow perhaps?), though I’d settle for any attention and recognition for this film. Yes, I know it’s early days. We still have eight months left in the year and hundreds more movies to asses for awards prospects. But Margaret has already asserted itself early as one of 2023’s best, and it has the thematic and emotional power (and name, as a novel almost every voter will be familiar with) to endure, should The Academy give it a chance and not dismiss it as “YA fare.”
Too often, voters find trivial excuses to ignore women’s stories in awards season (need I remind everyone of the bullshit color grading debate surrounding Women Talking last year?), and Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret is simply too good to be taken down for the fact that its target audience is, primarily, middle school girls. Who cares? The feelings and lessons found in this film are universal, and it takes an incredibly special storyteller to be able to pull that off. Her name is Kelly Fremon Craig, and she’s more than earned your consideration.