[This review was originally published almost three months ago at Give Me Some Light on Substack. Subscribe, and you’ll get these reviews while the movie is still brand new!]

Are you there, Kelly Fremon Craig?

It’s me, a middle-aged man and a fan of your movies about teenagers.

Okay, that probably sounds unsettling, like maybe someone should put me on a watchlist. And I’m well-aware that I, as a 50-something male, am not the target audience for your films about teenage girls.

But as I teach creative writing to students just out of high school, students who are working through their own teen experiences in writing, I care very much about this genre. And your film The Edge of Seventeen remains for me, seven years after I first saw it, one of the gold-standard films about teenagers and families of teenagers. That movie stands strong alongside Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird as an exceptional film in its genre for how it demonstrates such close attention to — and thus love for — young humans in uncertain and embarrassing stages of development. I still remember Nadine (the always-impressive Hailee Steinfeld) and her exasperation when she discovers that her brother is dating her best friend Krista (my first encounter with the radiant Haley Lu Richardson!) While that premise struck me as unremarkable in the genre of coming-of-age comedies, I was surprised and delighted by how quickly I found myself caring for your characters, by the depth and nuance of the performances; and by Woody Harrelson’s understated work (which remains my favorite big screen performance of his).

So I was there on opening weekend to see your adaptation of Judy Blume’s beloved story about Margaret.

Gretchen, Nancy, Margaret, and Janie (l-r) get an alarming lesson about what’s ahead for girls their age. [Image from the Lionsgate trailer.]

And sure enough, even though I’ve never been a sixth-grade girl, I found so much here that rang true. Like Margaret (whose spunk, awkwardness, and bewilderment are played to perfection by young Abby Ryder Fortson), I grew up with loving and faithful parents who came from families with entirely different kinds of engagement with religion. For Margaret, Dad (Benny Safdie, inspired casting!) is Jewish, and Mom (the effervescent Rachel McAdams) is a Christian. For me, both Dad and Mom were (and still are) evangelical Christians, and during my K–12 school years, invested in the development of my intellect and my faith. (Here’s to “mainstream” Christians who have confidence that the Truth will set them free, and who would never build walls of denial and antagonism against the world that they claim God “so loved.”)

You portray with such sensitivity and understanding the trouble that Margaret suffers as she gets caught in a tug-of-war between zealously religious grandparents, both eager to convert her to their tradition. I didn’t experience this in my family, but I did experience it in the world of Christian education, where I found myself torn between the so-called-“conservatives” (who were were obsessed with cultural dominance, morality checklists, and church-culture conformity, and seemed so often to be disgruntled), and so-called “liberals” (who seemed irresponsibly reckless, but who were appealing in their enthusiasm about imagination, diversity, and inclusion). I found myself recoiling instinctively from teachers who were hell-bent on indoctrinating me into what I now recognize as religious fundamentalism — and that’s quite similar to what Margaret is feeling when her Jewish paternal Grandmother Sylvia (played with effortless charisma by Katy Bates) and her evangelical maternal Grandma and Grandpa Hutchins (Mia Dillon and Gary Houston) meet on the battlefield for a claim on the poor girls’s soul.

As Grandma Sylvia, Kathy Bates is the self-appointed queen of any room she’s in. [Image from the Lionsgate trailer.]

I love that Margaret realizes that she can reject such programatic, control-freakish behavior and still carry on a meaningful dialogue with the Higher Power whose presence she can feel. (Is this a faithful representation of how Judy Blume handles this in the book? I hope so. It’s inspired.) And as she does, she’s on a trajectory toward love and inclusion, quite contrary to the circles of peer pressure who are preoccupied with forming exclusive clubs that have strict membership guidelines.

Like Margaret, I’ve never much doubted that there is a God, a Presence in the silence who pays loving attention, and who isn’t there to grant my wishes but to show me that “love is bigger than anything in its way.” (Thanks for that line, U2.) I drew confidence and consolation from the concept that God was gracious and benevolent; I never dreamed of throwing those teachings of Jesus out with the toxic bathwater of fundamentalism. I was drawn to (and, if you will, “saved” by) teachers who believed that God is Love, and Love respects the law but favors grace; God is Love, and Love is full of fearless intellectual curiosity; God is Love, and Love is Unconditional, embracing and learning from outcasts, and refusing to set up exclusionary membership standards.

While bothered by the evangelical urgency of her religious grandparents, Margaret maintains a healthy conversation with God. [Image from the Lionsgate trailer.]

Anyway — as you can see, while the movie explores so may of Margaret’s challenges (and those of her mother, too, in ways that make the film so much more substantial), I resonated with this particular thread of the story. I’ve never read Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret, even though it’s revered now as a classic work. I don’t remember the book being a topic of discussion amongst boys my age, but I was an avid reader, and I’m surprised that I didn’t move on to reading Judy Blume after growing up in the good imaginary company of Fern from Charlotte’s Web and Beezus and Ramona from Beverly Clearly. I missed out. Even though I was quite busy surviving my own confusing adolescence at the time, I think I would have found plenty about Margaret’s challenges — social, biological, theological — “relatable” and intriguing.

American ideals for womanhood seem rightfully alarming to these adolescents of the 1970s. [Image from the Lionsgate trailer.]

I never suffered a traumatic move from one city to another in my childhood, but I can imagine how it rattles poor Margaret when the family moves (despite Grandma Sylvia’s best efforts to stop them) from New York to New Jersey and she has to adapt to a new school, a new community of teens. But I can, of course, understand the alarmingly biological unrest of adolescence and its hormonal surges, the increasingly intriguing and terrifying world of sex, and the troubles of peer pressure. Who is Margaret supposed to become? Which religion will she embrace? When will she cross that threshold into womanhood? Which comes first—the bra or the bust? The pads or the period?

I can imagine that this movie might have been somewhat discomforting to me in middle school. The subjects of puberty and sexuality were treated as so secretive — and, frankly, so charged with the threats of shame and Divine judgment — that it would have been difficult for me to easily interpret this story. But now, as the happy uncle of more than a dozen amazing nieces, some of whom have now grown up and raising daughters of their own, I am ever so grateful that this book exists.

Necessary shopping at a pharmacy becomes a trial by fire for Margaret and Janie. [Image from the Lionsgate trailer.]

And speaking of awkward — I had no idea how uncomfortable I would be in this movie theater, realizing that I was that weirdo middle-aged man sitting alone in the back while about 25 girls (and a few scowling moms) filed in and saw me there. I wondered if maybe I should leave just so they could relax.

But then, something remarkable happened. As I was so quickly caught up in the joys of the movie, laughing heartily along with everyone else, a girl sitting all by herself at the end of the row kept glancing at me as if I was the subject of some kind of test. And then she began moving gradually down the row — a few seats at a time. I suspect she had reserved a seat just a few seats down from mine and had decided not to take any chances. But by two-thirds of the way through the film, she had noticed that I was laughing at the funny things and cringing at the cringe-y things. We started exchanging wide-eyed glances at the movie’s startling comic turns, as if surprised that we were finding the same things funny. Or maybe her intuition told her that movies like this are best as communal experiences — I don’t know. How would I know about what she was thinking? Anyway, it was a pleasant surprise to have something like company at what turns out to be a movie that should be shared by families and friends. (At least I feel confident that I passed one person’s “Creep Test.”)

Does Margaret need… “support”? [Image from the Lionsgate trailer.]

Anyway, Kelly Fremon Craig, you deserve all the raves your movie is getting, and I hope you’ll take pleasure in the genuine enthusiasm that I heard about the film last night when I tuned in to NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour. I found this one of the most enjoyable episodes I’ve heard there in a while.

And, if no one has told you this yet, allow me: You would be the ideal director for films based on any of the YA novels by National Book Award finalist Sara Zarr. Trust me. I’d recommend The Lucy Variations or Once Was Lost or my favorite How to Save a Life.

Oh, and if you see Rachel McAdams, please pass this on to her: She’s always impressed me, but I’m realizing that she has slowly and steadily become one of the actresses I trust most in all of movies — across the years (sheesh, almost 20 years of great McAdams’ performances!) and across the genres, from Mean Girls to Slings & Arrows to State of Play… all the way to her adventure with Ben Affleck in the TMCU (Terrence Malick Cinematic Universe). I will watch anything she’s in at this point. Her performance as Barbara Simon is exceptional; she plays it without a hint of condescension or pandering to younger viewers. She helps make this as great a movie about parenting as it is a great movie about being a kid.

The radiant Rachel McAdams makes Margaret’s mother more than just a supporting character. [Image from the Lionsgate trailer.]

Speaking of Mean Girls, a movie with an outstanding ensemble of young talent, how unlikely is it that I come away with Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret impressed by all five of the girls with substantial roles? I’m curious to see whatever any of them do next. There isn’t a kid in this movie who doesn’t seem like a genuine human being to me, and that’s rare.

If there is any character I want to spend more time with, though, it’s Margaret’s teacher Mr. Benedict, played with such warmth and nuance by Echo Kellum. Maybe he’s the most convenient connection for me, at my half-century mark. I want to be Mr. Benedict when I grow up — trustworthy, caring, and wise. I suspect that he’s going to be a role model for Margaret just as he is for me.

[This review was originally published almost three months ago at Give Me Some Light on Substack. Subscribe, and you’ll get these reviews while the movie is still brand new!]