‘Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret’ and puberty on film

15 May 2023 BY Charlotte Micklewright in Film Features

5 mins
Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret © LIONSGATE ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret © LIONSGATE ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

A blend of utterly mortifying and thrilling changes, puberty can become the dominant feature in a young person's life. It's a universal and natural transition, but it's all too often shrouded in mystery or deemed an unsavoury topic. Based on the best-selling novel, Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret is a refreshing comedy that exposes the gloriously awkward and relatable experiences of going through puberty, raising questions about society's willingness to discuss these themes openly for the benefit of young people who are learning to be themselves.

The story takes place in 1970s New Jersey, where 11-year-old Margaret has moved to from the big city with her parents. It's an awkward age to make a fresh start, but Margaret is quickly swept into a friendship group, whose members are fully focused on achieving adolescence: this means getting their first bra, their first kiss, and their first period. Margaret wants these things so badly that she's even praying to God to hurry up and make them happen. But even her religion is yet to be defined, as her secular Jewish father and lapsed Christian mother have left her to make up her own mind, which is proving very confusing, on top of everything else.

The original book, written by Judy Blume, has been a gleeful reference point for generations of young women embarking on their own timid yet exciting journey through puberty. Its frank talk about menstruation, a subject that some parents and educators may still find uncomfortable to talk to young people about, also led to the book being banned at times. The taboo status of the novel attracted yet more keen readers, who delighted in the relatable and, in fact, perfectly appropriate and healthy interpretations of pre-teen experiences. The filmmaker who has finally brought the book to the screen, Kelly Fremon Craig, was one such fan, citing Blume's warm and honest writing as an inspiration for her debut film about teen angst, The Edge of Seventeen.

Film has the unique power to impart knowledge and, at the same time, reflect life back at us and critique how society handles difficult conversations. One of the most memorable portrayals of first periods on film is the scene in My Girl, when 11-year-old Vada comes running out the bathroom shouting "I'm haemorrhaging!", before the woman her father is dating patiently sits her down for ‘the talk'. In Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret, ‘the talk' is delivered at school via an old-fashioned informative video that leaves the girls squeamish, in a gentle parody of society's embarrassment when it comes to sex and bodies. But the characters' fervent curiosity is portrayed from such an empathetic perspective that it transmits a very genuine sense of excitement and anticipation, welcoming audiences on a journey of innocent discovery.

The film also manages to cleverly depict an almost all-consuming preoccupation with puberty within a framework of spiritual self-discovery and personal growth. As the title suggests, Margaret confides her worries and wishes in God. While she is not sure which religious institution she is meant to belong to, her faith reveals an earnest desire to understand who she is and how she fits into the world. In this manner, the film powerfully connects what might be dismissed as a young person's trivial or self-centred concerns with much deeper and existential thoughts, thus acknowledging a very real anxiety about growing up. Margaret's desperate appeals to a higher power for her breasts to grow provide much humour in the film, and it is through these moments of comedy that young audiences especially may appreciate change as a process of self-awareness. Similarly to Disney's allegorical Turning Red, the film conveys that this is an ongoing yet life-affirming process, through a sympathetic characterisation of Margaret's agnostic mum as she navigates the challenges of being an artist, a housewife and parent.

With many classic coming of age films that are also suitable for pre-teen audiences, including Mean Girls, centring around the experiences of older adolescents, it will be particularly refreshing for 11- to 14-year-olds to see themselves represented authentically on the big screen. Fremon Craig's film confronts young people's fascination with and misconception of an impending sexual awakening in a realistic yet reassuring way. An especially humbling moment sees Margaret recognising that she only repeated mean rumours about another girl because she was envious of her being more developed physically. Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret arrives in cinemas in a year when Relationships, Sex and Health Education (RSHE) in UK schools has come under scrutiny following concerns that children are being exposed to ‘inappropriate' content. This considerate adaptation of Blume's ageless story promotes positive, myth-busting, and age-appropriate conversations surrounding sexuality and puberty. 

For further teaching resources on topics such as healthy relationships and consent, explore our specially designed Relationships of Film course.

Early secondary school audiences deserve entertaining and inspiring stories that are relevant to what they are also going through. Our streaming platform Into Film+ hosts a wide variety of films that are engaging for this age group. Gender equality at the pre-pubescent junction is at the heart of Saudi film WadjdaLife of Pi and Persepolis contain excellent examples pre-teen characters exploring faith and religion. Diary of a Wimpy Kid offers an insight into the joyfully cringeworthy experiences of an 11-year-old boy, while Inside Out also tackles the topics of growing up and difficult transitions in an imaginative and friendly way. The short film Turn it Around explores first crushes, peer pressure and being true to yourself, and the short animation The Girl Behind the Mirror similarly opens conversations about self-expression and LGBTQ+ themes that are accessible for young audiences.

Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret is out in UK cinemas on 19 May 2023.

Charlotte Micklewright news author image

Charlotte Micklewright, Curation Officer

Charlotte has an MSc in Film, Exhibition and Curation from the University of Edinburgh. She has previously worked for various film festivals across Europe and for the educational online platform Mygrants.

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