Friday, April 28, 2023

Weekend Screen Seen: Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret, Polite Society

Like many a Gen X gal, I was a huge Judy Blume fan growing up, reading many of her books more than once (and some, like Forever, and Wifey, at an age I probably shouldn't have). And, like many of her fans, I was worried when I heard an adaptation of Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret was set for the big screen. Would it be modernized? How could that even be done? And would it be watered down for an era where even being able to talk about periods is under attack?

Those fears were unfounded. Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret is a charming period piece (sorry) set firmly in the early 1970's, complete with training bras, maxi pads, and games of spin the bottle. And while I am not sure how well it may play with today's pre-teens, it will definitely please adults who grew up loving the book.

The way I remembered it, the book was centered on the anxiety Margaret feels about puberty and her changing body. But in actuality, religion plays just as big of a role in the story (which, given the "God" in the title, should not have come as much of a surprise). Margaret's interfaith parents (her mother is Christian and her father is Jewish), chose not to raise her without any religion, allowing her to decide for herself what she wants to believe in. We see Margaret attend Synagogue with her beloved grandmother Sylvia (a perfectly eccentric Kathy Bates), confusedly confess at a Catholic church, and confront the Christian grandparents who disapproved of her mother's marriage. The story presents such a measured approach to religion that I'm pretty sure it, and not the period stuff, is the real reason the book has been consistently banned over the years.

The cast, for the most part, is perfect. The aforementioned Kathy Bates steals every scene she's in, but Abby Ryder Fortson's Margaret is complicated and lovable. As Margaret's mother, Barbara, Rachel McAdams is able to convey the rebellion brewing within a housewife who is beginning to question her decisions. It's only Benny Safdie, as Margaret's father, Herb, who feels like odd casting. He spends so much of the film with a strange half-smile on his face that I wondered if he was playing him as a secret stoner. (Definitely not something I remember from the book.)

Director and writer Kelly Fremon Craig has crafted a movie that I have to call "pleasant," but not in any derogatory way. There's nothing wrong with pleasant, and sometimes it comes as a damn relief. I spent the whole movie relishing the nostalgic sets, soundtrack, and costumes, laughing, occasionally tearing up, and just appreciating that these beloved characters were finally brought to the screen in a way that would make Judy Blume proud.

I wouldn't have thought periods would be a thing to tie Margaret and the action comedy Polite Society together, but mentions of a woman's "time" and "heavy flow" are used more than once in the film to get uncomfortable men to do what the women want. (Want to freak a guy out? Tell him to look for something in your purse and then say "ignore all the tampons." He'll jerk his hand out of that purse like you told him there was a cobra in it. Do they think we carry used ones around???)

Aside from that connection, Polite Society also centers on a teenage girl and her relationship with her family, with the underlying theme that girls should be able to carve out their own futures. Ria (Priya Kansara) dreams of becoming a stunt woman, and spends her spare time filming her practices, with the help of her older sister Lena (Ritu Arya). When Lena decides to give up art school after falling in love with a doctor, her Pakistani parents are pleased, but Ria is sure something just isn't right with her sister's fiance and over-bearing mother, and vows to save her from that horrible fate: marriage.

It takes a little while to adjust to Polite Society's meshing of genres, which include romantic comedy, Bollywood musical, martial arts actioner, and even horror, but writer and director Nida Manzoor knows how to balance them all, resulting in a film that is just pure fun, from start to finish.

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