Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, by Albert W. Vogt III

Fasten your metaphorical reading seatbelts, and forgive me for making up a clunky new version of an old cliché.  To answer the question asked by the title character in Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, Margaret Simon (Abby Ryder Fortson), yes, God is there.  This forms a running theme throughout the film, and provides a narration given by Margaret as she continues talking at God.  Please note the purposeful use of the preposition “at.”  It will be important later.  I could have seen, and wanted to, Big George Foreman: The Miraculous Story of the Once and Future Heavyweight Champion of the World.  From the trailers I saw, it appealed to me in many ways.  It focuses on the career of a boxer, and I am a fan of the sport.  It also seems to pertain to Foreman’s faith.  As a serious Christian Catholic and movie aficionado, Hollywood needs more like it.  Then I thought, well, a motion picture like that one would be preaching to this choir.  Instead, I went with the one that will probably receive more attention in Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.  That appellation alone is enough to get the blood pumping for a Catholic reviewer like me.  How full of righteous indignation am I after watching it?  Read on to find out.

The place where our eponymous character is when Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret begins is summer camp.  Upon returning to her urban New York City home, her parents Barbara (Rachel McAdams) and Herb Simon (Benny Safdie) inform Margaret that dad has gotten a promotion and they are moving to New Jersey.  Margaret is not the only to not take well this turn of events.  Also not thrilled by this change is Herb’s mother, Sylvia Simon (Kathy Bates).  She seems to have been living with her son’s family, and she relates in that passive aggressive way that so many grandmothers excel at that she feels she is being abandoned.  Margaret, though, begins to forget about the troubles she is going through when she meets one of the neighbor girls, Nancy Wheeler (Elle Graham).  Not long into them hanging out, Nancy invites Margaret to be a part of the secret club she is forming with two other young ladies in their class.  Having a readymade group of friends before school begins eases Margaret’s transition.  Still, she finds that there are some rules for being in their furtive organization that forms the basis of the peer pressure she feels throughout.  Some of these are a little innocuous, like deciding that none of them should wear socks to school.  Also, they pledge to always be open and honest with one another, and that everything they say will stay between the four of them.  This will come in handy in divulging any boys on which they have crushes, even though Margaret eventually lies in this department when she is embarrassed to admit her interest in Moose Freed (Aidan Wojtak-Hissong).  He is a friend of Nancy’s brother Evan Wheeler (Landon Baxter), and somebody of which Nancy does not approve.  So far, this all seems pretty innocuous, pre-teen girl stuff, I guess.  Where it takes a turn is in Nancy’s fixation on them getting their first menstruation, or period.  The need to admit when they first get it is one of the caveats of membership.  For the moment, Nancy is mainly focused on the development of the bust, and she has all four of them performing ridiculous exercises to increase their cup size.  So, yeah, all that is going on. . . .  Meanwhile, at school, their teacher Mr. Benedict (Echo Kellum) assigns a year long project to Margaret on religion.  Though the talking at God begins before Margaret is given this assignment, from this point on it is given a new light as she explores the matter.  Part of the issue is that Barbara was born Christian while Herb comes from a Jewish background.  They have raised Margaret to be neither, preferring to let her choose what she will one day be.  Now she has a project to complete.  To get the experience, she first goes to temple with Sylvia, who is thrilled to take her granddaughter.  She also attends church with one of her friends from her secret group, Janie Loomis (Amari Price).  She also runs into a Catholic church after bullying one of the more developmentally mature girls in her class, Laura Danker (Isol Young), even briefly ending up in the confessional.  Through all this, she says that she does not feel God.  Part of her estrangement from the Almighty has to do with aspects of her social life not going as she hoped.  When one of her group, Gretchen Potter (Katherine Mallen Kupferer), gets her first period, it only brings Margaret more anxiety about getting hers.  Then Nancy sends her a postcard (as you do) that her period has come, further frustrating Margaret.  It all points to her needing a break, which appears to come from Sylvia in the form of an invitation to go to Florida where she has retired.  This is derailed when Barbara’s estranged parents finally reconnect with their daughter, wanting to put aside the past and get to know their family.  Such is Sylvia’s shock at the development that she unexpectedly comes to New Jersey at the same time that Sylvia’s parents are visiting.  Tensions come to a head after dinner when Barbara’s parents ask if Margaret is going to Sunday school.  Sylvia takes this moment to proclaim that Margaret is Jewish.  Barbara and Herb are outraged at both sets of parents, but Margaret is mad at everybody.  It makes her come to the conclusion that there is no God, which she writes in her final paper.  It takes some alone time with Barbara to calm Margaret down and give her some perspective.  By the end of the school year, she is becoming friends with Laura and being bolder with Moose.  With things looking up again, she asks God if He is still there before the film ends.

I started to get somewhat self-conscious towards the end of watching Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.  For starters, I was the youngest person in the theater at my showing, and one of two males.  The other one looked like he could have been a veteran of the Korean War.  Please bear in mind that usually I go to movies by myself.  If nothing else, my Catholic Youth Ministry Safe Environment training began telling me that my presence here was a bit strange.  Still, as I alluded to in the introduction, I felt it was an important film to see.  I have a passing awareness of the controversy that once surrounded the book on which the motion picture is based.  It revolves around its focus on subjects that were considered taboo.  For better or worse (and the difference between the two is not lost on me), we live in a society today where even young people are more open about subjects like menstruation and breast size.  I am not in the camp that a novel should be banned as this one once was because of the age of the characters contained therein and the topics it covers.  What I do believe is that these developments should be kept private between a daughter and her parents.  In the privacy of their own homes, they can read a book or watch a film like this one and discuss how such a delicate matter could be handled.  This brings me to the audience I sat with in the theater.  They found its making light of Margaret’s experiences funny.  The word “cute” was used a couple times as well.  I can hear all the arguments against my disapproval of such reactions.  They would be full of all the usual clichés: everyone has to go through it; it is better to laugh a such situations; why be so serious?  And so on.  Granted, I am a relatively middle-aged man making these observations, so who am I to have an informed opinion?  I suppose this is all a long way of saying that I do not get why this needed to be a movie at all.

Okay, now that I have gotten my bewilderment over Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret out of the way, it is time to roll up my Catholic sleeves.  Sorry, I could not resist some more clichés.  As I said at the beginning, yes, God is present.  The glaring error that the movie makes is that God is not some magical, wish granting entity.  This is somewhat understandable given Margaret’s age.  I can remember being as old as she is and asking God for certain outcomes to come true, only to have events unfold in the opposite manner.  This is hard for young people, but it is also a sign of immaturity.  At the same time, it is not the kid’s fault.  We cannot expect twelve-year-old boys and girls to have an adult understanding of God.  We are all called to be like children before God, yes, and I mention that because I can almost hear some of you thinking this as read this review (if you have made it this far).  That is not how life works, however.  As young people, we want to experience the world as grown-ups.  It takes us getting on in years to learn the wisdom of approaching the world as the newer generation does.  As somebody who has worked in youth ministry, the fault belongs with the adults.  Our catechesis can be hit or miss, at best, and usually the result is Margaret yelling at her parents and grandparents that she does not believe in God.  In that scene, this implication is that religion is the problem.  Barbara’s parents’ faith alienated her from them, and Sylvia almost does the same with her insistence on Judaism.  It is the lack of considered direction from any of them on the subject of religion that has Margaret looking at God as simply One who does good things for us rather than developing a true relationship with Him.  I will admit, her speaking at Him is a great start.  Adults can learn a lot from this continuous conversation she has with Him.  What angers me to a degree, though, is the suggestion that religion is to blame for her struggles.  The Catholic Church, for example, does not teach any of what I am extrapolating from the film.  Yet, Hollywood continues to pile on stereotypes about faith like you see here that has the young and old not coming to Mass on Sundays.  Ultimately, God in this movie remains a warm and fuzzy being, like an imaginary friend that we can speak with on occasion and bounce ideas off of when the fancy strikes.  He does not speak in the film, at least not in a way it acknowledges.  Then again, if your imaginary friend ever spoke back to you, then I would be worried.  On the other hand, whatever you think God is, a religion like Catholicism provides a framework for all the experiences Margaret claims she is missing with the Almighty.  In other words, it helps us along in the relationship with Him that He so desires with all of us, and in which He always responds.

This is why at the beginning of this review of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret I said that she simply talks “at” God.  She has a set of things she wants accomplished, like her period and bigger breasts, and when she does not get them, she gets mad.  Again, I do not completely blame her.  The blame lies with the writers.  What she, and they, miss is giving God the opportunity to respond, as He will do.  It takes maturity to recognize it.  For these reasons, I cannot recommend this movie to a broad audience, despite some interesting moments.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s