I’m not a woman. Never been one. I’ve never been an 11-year-old girl, and I have no idea what that would be like.
But my gut and heart tell me there isn’t a false note in “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” (PG-13, 104 minutes, in theaters), based on the best-seller by Judy Blume.
Written and directed by Kelly Fremon Craig (“The Edge of Seventeen”), it’s a coming-of-age dramedy, set in 1970, about Margaret (Abby Ryder Fortson) as she moves from New York City to New Jersey, finds new friends, enters sixth grade, and anticipates developing breasts and having her first period.
That’s a lot, and there’s a lot more to her story.
Margaret’s mother, Barbara (Rachel McAdams), who’s Christian, and Margaret’s father, Herb (Benny Safdie), who’s Jewish, have decided not to push their daughter toward either religion, to let her decide her religious beliefs on her own.
The parents’ “mixed marriage” doesn’t seem to be an issue for Herb’s mother, Sylvia (Kathy Bates), though she assumes (vehemently) that Margaret is Jewish. Sylvia is a loving grandmother and accepts Barbara as her daughter-in-law. But Barbara’s parents have not accepted Herb because of his religion; they’ve cut Barbara and her family out of their lives, and have never seen their granddaughter.
The more Margaret becomes aware of this situation, the more she is challenged to make her own decisions about God and religion (one way to assert her independence) – all while harboring a crush on a boy in her class, taking part in “Spin the Bottle,” and chanting with her friends “We must, we must, we must increase our bust!”
Craig’s adaptation is funny and sweet, but never saccharine or contrived. It shows that life can be challenging, no matter what one’s age (we can see the hurt Barbara and Herb feel over her parents’ rejection), but that it still can be good. I’ve never read Blume’s 1970 book, but the fact that it is beloved (I don’t use that word lightly) by so many suggests that it’s similarly life-affirming.
I loved this film. **** (out of four)
And then there’s …
“Beau Is Afraid” (R, 179 minutes, in theaters) couldn’t be more different than “Margaret,” in pretty much every possible way. It offers a relentlessly ugly, cynical view of life as an ongoing nightmare. It’s nearly three hours (we’re spared that extra minute) of torture for the moviegoer.
Ari Aster wrote and directed it. He’s the same filmmaker who has given us the unsettling horror offerings “Hereditary” and “Midsommar” (another movie I loathed, though many people whose opinion I respect loved the film – they might also embrace “Beau Is Afraid”).
Joaquin Phoenix plays Beau, a whiny, wimpy, damaged man consumed by guilt and (as the title tells us) fear. It’s tempting to call Beau paranoid, but his fears are well-founded. He lives in a drearily bland apartment in a horrific, crime-ridden, seedy neighborhood, where a trip across the street to a corner store is a life-threatening obstacle course through the lowest forms of humanity.
If something bad can happen to Beau, it undoubtedly will, whether it’s water running out in his apartment at the worst possible moment to learning that his mother has just died in the weirdest possible way.
He tries to make his way to his mother’s funeral, but winds up in one bizarre situation after another, always with terrible outcomes. Nathan Lane and Amy Ryan play a sympathetic couple he stays with at one point, but that visit predictably becomes a disaster, too. (Broadway legend Patti Lupone also has a key role later in the film.)
There’s no relief in sight, and that’s clearly Aster’s intention. He presents Beau’s just-when-you-think-it-can’t-get-any-worse-it-does existence for comic effect of the darkest variety.
But while I like to think of myself as having a fairly sick sense of humor (and I think most people who know me would agree), I couldn’t wait to get out of the theater. In more than 40 years of reviewing, I have never walked out of a movie early (other than for circumstances not related to the film). But about a half-hour into “Beau Is Afraid,” knowing there was another 2½ hours to go, I seriously considered it. It felt like Aster was a cat, I was a mouse, and he was swatting me around for fun – but not my fun.
I forced myself to stick with it, hoping but not expecting it to get better.
There is a pocket of hope for some kind of meaningful human connection when Parker Posey enters the picture as the now-adult childhood girlfriend of Beau. Could Posey’s sexy, decisive, wounded yet strong character finally break through the monotonous, soul-crushing awfulness otherwise on display?
Why, Aster won’t have any of that. That would compromise his vision. It would interrupt his artistic masturbation.
I love Posey in this movie, and I mourn her misuse in it.
I hated this film. Bomb (zero stars)
Tim Miller is co-president of the Boston Society of Film Critics. He teaches film and journalism at Cape Cod Community College in West Barnstable. You can contact Tim at [email protected] or follow him onTwitter @TimMillerCritic. Or you can ignore him completely.
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