After 50 years of declining Hollywood's offers, Judy Blume is on the big screen
“Sorry, Margaret.” Judy Blume tweeted last month in response to a Florida GOP bill prohibiting young girls from discussing their menstrual cycles on school grounds. She was apologizing, of course, to the eponymous heroine of her 1970 novel “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret,” whose struggles with boys, bras and organized religion while waiting impatiently for her first period have comforted young readers for decades. I don’t think there’s any way to overstate what a lifeline Blume’s books were for generations of confused and horny kids horrified by the bizarre things our bodies started doing during puberty. With warm humor and plainspoken wisdom, her stories and characters reassured us that these outsized emotions and strange new sensations were all, in fact, perfectly normal. To read a Judy Blume book as an awkward adolescent is to understand you’re not alone.
With politicians emptying libraries at an alarming rate and legislating their backward beliefs into our bedrooms and bathrooms, it feels like we need Judy Blume now more than ever. Luckily, the 85-year-old author has been having quite a resurgence. This month brings Amazon Prime’s excellent documentary “Judy Blume Forever,” as well as a long-awaited, big-screen adaptation of “Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret” that captures the uncomfortable encounters and stubborn truths of one of the modern era’s most banned and beloved books. Nearly every conversation I’ve had since seeing the film has started with me saying, “Don’t worry, they didn’t screw it up.”
The documentary, directed by Davina Pardo and Leah Wolchok, begins with Blume behind the counter at the bookstore she owns in Key West. The sprightly retiree takes us through her life story, candid about mistakes made during her two failed marriages before finding her voice by talking straight to teens and tweens in stories that didn’t sugarcoat what her readers were going through. Blume’s breakthrough was writing about sexuality without punishment or humiliation. In her books, the facts of life are just facts of life, which is a source of unending consternation to culture warriors on the religious right. (This was one of several docs I saw at Sundance this year in which footage of Ronald Reagan’s inauguration is used as a harbinger of doom.) My favorite clip comes from a 1984 episode of CNN’s “Crossfire,” when the exasperated author finally asks Pat Buchanan why he’s so hung up on masturbation.
The film features obligatory celebrity testimonials from the likes of Molly Ringwald, Lena Dunham and “PEN15” creator Anna Konkle. (The guest list skews female for obvious reasons, but the filmmakers miss out on what a game-changer Blume’s “Then Again, Maybe I Won’t” was for little boys who had been so ashamed of what they were doing under the covers at night. Not that I would know anything about that.) But it’s most affecting when focusing on the writer’s years of correspondence with countless young fans, most of whom didn’t have anyone else in their lives who would listen. What a gift it is to let a child know they are not alone. What a cruel thing to try and take that feeling away by making such stories inaccessible to them.
Blume spent 50 years declining offers to make a movie adaptation of “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret," fearing that the story was too personal for too many readers who didn't want to see it ruined by Hollywood. The writer finally changed her mind after seeing “The Edge of Seventeen,” a heartfelt and hilarious 2016 debut from writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig that captures the end of adolescence in all its messy, obstinate glory. Craig’s an ideal interpreter for the travails of Margaret Simon, played here by Abby Ryder Fortson as an eleven-year-old transplant to suburban New Jersey trying to navigate new friendships at an unfamiliar school, seeking the counsel of a deity in whom she’s not sure she really believes.
The beauty of Blume’s book is that it tackles big issues without making a big deal out of them. Craig smartly preserves that sense of proportion, keeping the movie grounded in believable, day-to-day interactions and lived-in 1970s-era details. To Margaret, these events feel tumultuous. To us, they’re wonderfully ordinary. It would have been so easy to blow this — to make Margaret a wise-beyond-her-years smart-aleck who talks like a screenwriter and slather the story with contemporary sass. Instead, she’s a refreshingly regular kid. Margaret is inarticulate sometimes and can be as moody as any other little girl her age. She probably shouldn’t be spending so much time hanging out with Nancy Wheeler (an impeccably snooty Elle Graham) but we’re pretty sure she’ll figure that out for herself, eventually. She’ll figure a lot of things out, eventually.
All your favorite scenes from Blume’s book are faithfully rendered by Craig and company. From Margaret buying her first “Gro-Bra” and secretly trying on sanitary napkins to playing Spin the Bottle at creepy Norman Fisher’s basement birthday party. (The latter is accompanied by a laugh-out-loud Dusty Springfield music cue.) Our heroine remains captivated by her lawn-mowing neighbor Moose Freed, as Craig’s camera follows Margaret’s fascination with his hairy armpits. The girls still mercilessly bully the tall, fully-developed Laura Danker, spreading rumors about what she does with boys behind the A&P. In fact, my one big quibble with the picture is a brief addition at the end offering the protagonist a feel-good flicker of redemption on that front. Judy Blume novels knew that such schoolyard transgressions are seldom redressed, but I guess this is the movies.
Margaret’s parents are played by Benny Safdie and Rachel McAdams, the latter giving one of the most offhandedly graceful performances I’ve seen in some time. It’s obviously amusing to watch one of the original “Mean Girls” playing mom to a kid in similar circumstances, but the role also leans beautifully into McAdams’ emotional accessibility. The movie expands on the novel by mirroring Margaret’s misadventures at school with her mother’s attempts at adapting to suburbia. This free-spirited New York art teacher desperately wants to learn how to cook and keep a clean house but she can never quite pull it all together. One of the movie's loveliest moments finds mother and daughter curled up on the couch, both agreeing how exhausting it is trying to fit in. Judy Blume didn’t write that scene, but she could have.
“Judy Blume Forever” is currently streaming on Amazon Prime. “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” is now in theaters.