Producers: Julie Ansell, Judy Blume, Amy Brooks, James L. Brooks, Kelly Fremon Craig, Aldric La’auli Porter and Richard Sakai   Director: Kelly Fremon Craig   Screenplay: Kelly Fremon Craig   Cast: Rachel McAdams, Abby Ryder Fortson, Elle Graham, Benny Safdie, Echo Kellum, Kathy Bates, Amari Alexis Price, Katherine Kupferer, Kate MacCluggage, Aidan Wojtak-Hissong, Isol Young, Simms May, Landon Baxter, Zachary Brooks, Mia Dillon, Gary Houston and Wilbur Fitzgerald    Distributor: Lionsgate

Grade: B

Those for whom reading Judy Blume’s 1970 coming-of-age novel was a fondly-remembered rite of passage will appreciate that Kelly Fremon Craig and her collaborators have brought such taste and affection to its long hoped-for transition to the screen.  “Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret,” with its humorously frank treatment of a girl’s pre-adolescent anxieties, was considered rather provocative in its day.  Today, given the changing mores, the movie has something of the feel of a TV afterschool special or cheekily nostalgic sitcom, but when handled so lovingly it’s still enjoyable.

Abby Ryder Fortson is both suitably plain and pleasantly engaging as Margaret Simon, the twelve-year old compelled to move with her parents Barbara (Rachel McAdams) and Herb (Benny Safdie) from New York City to a New Jersey suburb when Herb gets a promotion.  She’s upset about leaving her beloved grandma Sylvia (Kathy Bates) and all her friends behind and scared at the thought of having to go to a new school.

But things actually work out pretty well pretty quickly in her new home.  Super-aggressive Nancy Wheeler (Elle Graham), who lives down the block and will also be starting sixth grade, invites her to be the fourth member in a secret club she’s starting with classmates Janie (Amari Alexis Price) and Gretchen (Katherine Kupferer).  And though Nancy’s brother Evan (Landon Baxter) heckles them, his buddy Moose (Aidan Wojtak-Hissong) is a nice kid Margaret’s soon infatuated with.  As an added bonus, her teacher Mr. Benedict (Echo Kellum) is a good guy.

But there are problems, too.  Class dweeb Norman Fisher (Simms May) shows interest in Margaret, and Nancy sets rules for the club—like not wearing socks—that can be irritating.  She also emphasizes the need to increase their breast sizes and wear bras, and the importance of having their first period.  And the group follows her lead in being catty toward some of their students, especially Laura (Isol Young), who’s more physically developed than they are and is rumored to be letting the handsome class lothario Philip Leroy (Zachary Brooks), whom they all swoon over, “feel her up.”  Meanwhile Barbara gets into difficulties of her own: wanting to fit in and help Margaret at school as well, she allows herself to get dragooned by Nancy’s primly bossy mother Jan (Kate MacCluggage) into all sorts of PTA duties, though she obviously pines to return to the art teaching she gave up with the move.

The other big question facing both mother and daughter has to do with religion.  Margaret’s parents decided to let her grow up without adhering either to Barbara’s Christian faith or Herb’s Judaism, deciding that she can choose what she believes for herself when she’s old enough.  Given the stress of the move, Margaret’s already started asking a nondenominational God for advice (thus the title), and when Mr. Benedict suggests that she investigate religions as her class project, it leads her to go to Temple when visiting proud Sylvia in New York and attending Christian services with Barbara and Janie back home; she even stumbles into a Catholic confessional at one point.    

But a serious crisis occurs when Barbara’s parents (Mia Dillon and Gary Houston connect with her for the first time in many years, having effectively disowned her for marrying a Jew, and come to New Jersey from Ohio, intending among other things to proselytize Margaret.  Hearing of their visit, Sylvia crashes the party with her friend Morris Binamin (Wilbur Fitzgerald), and all heck breaks loose.

All of this, and more, represents a year of serious learning for Margaret—about whom to trust and how to behave, about choosing wisely and not following others blindly, about treating other people with respect, and, of course, about becoming a woman, the “event” with which the movie ends.  It proves far less traumatic for her than it did for Carrie White, though of course Carrie’s mother was far less supportive than Barbara.

Craig secures an extremely likable performance from Fortson, and more than passable ones from all the younger members of the cast.  McAdams, freed from the stifling restraints of the “Dr. Strange” franchise, seems to be having a great time as the frazzled but loving mom, and though he has less to do, Safdie contributes a wonderfully laid-back turn.  Bates, of course, sparks matters up every time she appears (the Temple scene shows her at her best), while Kellum makes Benedict the sort of understanding teacher every kid would love to have.  Steve Saklad’s production design and Ann Roth’s costumes reflect the period ambience nicely on a medium-level budget (a subway sign advertising Ethel Merman in “Hello Dolly” pinpoints the action to 1970, the year of the book’s appearance), and Tim Ives’ cinematography is colorful in a sitcom sort of way; the picture moves nicely from incident to incident, thanks to editors Nick Moore and Oona Flaherty, and Hans Zimmer’s score is as jaunty as you’d expect.

Those unacquainted with Blume’s book may dismiss Craig’s movie as innocuous, lightweight coming-of-age fare.  But for those who love the book, it will be a special treat.