Directed by Kelly Fremon Craig | Written by Craig, adapting the book by Judy Blume | 106 min | ▲▲▲▲△
I’m of the generation that grew up, unfortunately, with stuff that was for boys and stuff that was for girls, and Judy Blume was definitely for girls. I was told in no uncertain terms that there was nothing in her books that would be of any interest to me, a boy. So, watching the film adaptation of one of her books felt weirdly transgressive, but I was pleased to find there were things in the movie that were, in fact, for me.
It’s the story of almost-12-year-old Margaret (Abby Ryder Fortson) who, in the early 1970s, moves from New York to suburban New Jersey with her Mom, Barbara (Rachel McAdams), and Dad, Herb (Benny Safdie). She makes friends pretty quickly with a group of girls who get together to talk about the boys they like, and other concerns of tweens — like how their bodies are developing, from breasts to menstruation.
We also get to spend time with Barbara as she signs up to volunteer on a bunch of PTA committees and get her new home in order. With the exception of lawn-mowing, Herb is mostly absent.
This while Margaret explores her relationship with god. Her mother was raised Christian, and her father is Jewish, but caught between these worlds she’s not sure where her identity and spirituality lies. She says she only feels his presence when she’s alone, but when she discovers her mother’s parents disowned her when she married a Jew, it pushes her toward Judaism. Her Jewish grandmother, Sylvia (Kathy Bates), is thrilled.
Some of this is funny, all of it wholesome and sweet without being terribly twee — the refreshing frankness with which it gets into biological fact of puberty helps with that. Anybody who remembers playing spin the bottle or two minutes in the closet will likely cringe at the awkward truth of parties in the sixth grade — all that is captured here, and the child actors are all good. The film’s also a reminder that Rachel McAdams is one of the most reliable performers of her generation — she’s proven over a 20-year career she can do pretty much anything. Her Barbara is smart, empathetic, and entirely believable.
However, while the picture is entirely warm-hearted, it’s also simplistic in places where a little more depth might’ve been welcome. Margaret thanks her teacher, Mr Benedict (Echo Kellum), for having encouraged her to explore religion, but his actual influence gets a bit of a short shrift — he’s not in it much. We also get a conflict with Margaret’s friend Nancy and big trouble with Margaret’s extended family — these issues are left hanging in the end.
One other thing that I wondered, prompted by my cinepanion, who happened to be a woman: Why was this film made in 2023? Further to that, does a story written back when “Margaret” was a popular name resonate with girls now?
It struck us both how much more complex life must be like for kids these days, and how, generations from when Blume wrote this book, many people are much more secular. I expect kids today are less concerned about whether god is actually there.
Those questions of relevance linger, but the film remains a charmer.