Review: ‘Judy Blume Forever,’ starring Judy Blume

April 21, 2023

by Carla Hay

Judy Blume in “Judy Blume Forever” (Photo courtesy of Prime Video)

“Judy Blume Forever”

Directed by Davina Pardo and Leah Wolchok

Culture Representation: Taking place in various parts of the U.S., the documentary film “Judy Blume Forever” features a predominantly white group of people (with a few African Americans, Asians and Latinos) who are fans, loved ones and business associates of author Judy Blume, who also participated in this documentary.

Culture Clash: Blume talks about the controversies surrounding some of her books, her two failed marriages, and various insecurities and tragedies that she’s had in her life. 

Culture Audience: Besides appealing to the target audience of Judy Blume fans, “Judy Blume” will appeal to people interested in documentaries about famous and influential book authors.

Judy Blume in “Judy Blume Forever” (Photo courtesy of Prime Video)

“Judy Blume Forever” is a fan tribute documentary in the best sense of the term. It doesn’t need a lot of exposé journalism, because Judy Blume candidly shares her flaws and failings in the movie. Anyone who is a fan of Blume should consider this documentary as essential as her best books. “Judy Blume Forever” had its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.

Directed by Davina Pardo and Leah Wolchok, “Judy Blume Forever” beings with a scene of Blume reading an excerpt from her 1973 young-adult novel “Deenie.” In this excerpt, gym teacher Mrs. Eileen Rappaport talks to her students about masturbation. It’s the type of writing that got some of Blume’s books denounced or outright banned for being “inappropriate” reading for children. This type of banning is still going on in some places for books by Blume and many other authors.

Most of the protagonists in Blume’s books are tweens and teenagers, usually girls. And for millions of people, Blume’s books were the first books that they read as children where topics such as masturbation, menstruation, bullying, eating disorders, physical disabilities and teenage sex were openly discussed as facts of life that not everyone dealt with in the same way. The books validated many underage readers’ own feelings and insecurities about these issues that these kids couldn’t or wouldn’t be able to discuss with any adults.

Former 1980s teen idol Molly Ringwald, who knows what it’s like to be thought of as a relatable “role model” for girls, is one of several Blume fans interviewed in the documentary. Ringwald says, “Everything I learned about sex, or thinking about sex or crushes, I learned from Judy.” Filmmaker/TV producer/actress Lena Dunham adds, “Judy’s books speak about the unspeakable. It’s the reason why her books were so complicated for people.”

And author Tarayi Jones comments on what it was like to read a Blume book as a child: “It was like a look into a secret world. I felt someone was being honest. That’s a gift. That’s magic.” Tony-nominated actress Caitlin Kinnunen “(The Prom”) adds, “Judy wrote these scenes that were awkward.” It was that awkwardness that made her work so realistic, say many of her fans.

Blume says in the documentary, “When I started to write, I only identified with kids, not adults.” Although Blume would later write some books about and for adults, she is most famous for her books about adolescents and teenagers. She adds, “I was an anxious child. I felt like adults kept secrets from the kids. I hated the secrets. I had to make up what those secrets were. That fueled my imagination.”

Born in 1938 as Judith Sussman, she was born and raised in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Blume describes herself as a child who loved to go to the library with her homemaker mother Esther Sussman. Her father Rudolph Sussman was a dentist. Blume describes him as a “nurturer.” She adds, “I adored my father. He tried to raise me to want an adventurous life … and to take chances.” Blume also grew up with a brother named David, who was four or five years older than her.

As an anxious child, Blume says what worried her the most was her father dying in middle-age, because all seven of her father’s siblings died before they reached the age of 60. Blume (whose family is Jewish) also remembers childhood worries about the Holocaust and World War II. Blume admits that she’s struggled with lifelong insecurities about not being “good enough.”

Joanne Stern, Blume’s best friend since childhood, describes Blume as a child: “She was a good girl. She was very cute, very pretty, had beautiful clothes. She was very thin.” Blume adds, “I was a good girl with a bad girl lurking inside.” Mary Weaver, another Blume friend since childhood, is also shown in the documentary. Weaver and Blume fondly reminisce about a boy who was a schoolmate crush.

Blume came of age in the 1950s, a decade that she describes as “the era of pretend: Pretend that we’re happy when we’re not. Pretend that everything is great when it isn’t.” You don’t have to be a psychiatrist to know maybe that’s why Blume chose to be so frankly realistic in her books that are fiction but discuss issues that happen to real people.

Blume met her first husband, attorney John Blume, when she was a second-year undergraduate student at New York University. Sadly, her worst fear about her father came true, when he died of a heart attack at age 54, just five weeks before her wedding in 1959. Judy and John became the parents of two kids: daughter Randy and son Lawrence, also known as Larry. Blume said she knew she wanted a career outside of the home. And so, this avid reader decided to become a professional writer.

Like many famous authors, Judy’s early career was filled with a lot of rejections from publishers. She describes her earliest unpublished work as “imitation Dr. Seuss.” Judy says her mother was always her biggest supporter, who typed all of Judy’s manuscripts and never gave any criticism of her work. But Judy also admits her feelings toward her mother were complicated: “My mother had some low self-esteem issues herself. She wanted me to be perfect.”

Judy’s first children’s book to be published was 1969’s “The One in the Middle Is the Green Kangaroo,” which went largely unnoticed by the general public at the time of its publication. And then, Judy heard that book publisher Bradbury Press was looking for realistic fiction for middle-school kids. After getting a series of rejections, Blume finally got her big break: Bradbury published Blume’s 1970 novel “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.” It was a bestseller and is widely considered one of the most influential young-adult novels of all time. It has now been made into a movie, starring Abby Ryder Fortson as the title character.

In the book, 11-year-old Margaret Simon has parents who are in an interfaith marriage (her father is Jewish, her mother is Christian) but they chose not to raise Margaret in any religion. Margaret frequently talks to God about her hopes, dreams and fears about her life and about growing up. She is afraid of being the last in her peer group to grow breasts and get her menstrual period. And she worries about being accepted by her peers in school and in her New Jersey community.

These are all insecurities that Judy says she went through in her own adolescence. She was embarrassed that she hadn’t started menstruating yet, like most of her female friends, so she lied to her friends about getting her menstrual period. Judy says, just like Margaret, she was also self-conscious about being flat-chested. Judy can laugh about it now, but at the time, these issues weighed heavily on her adolescent life.

“I wanted the truth, the reality of being that age,” Judy says about how she wrote “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.” Judy adds, “Writing ‘Margaret’ gave me my sense of who I was and what I might be able to do.” Pat Scales, a librarian, comments on the phenomenal success of the book: “I knew when I read ‘Margaret’ that kids would flock to this book. The ‘realism’ that was available prior to Judy [Blume books] was not realistic at all.”

Simon & Schuster publishing executive Justin Chanda comments on the book: “It was explaining things that were foreign to me, quite frankly. But it was also speaking to me about stuff that I was thinking about, in terms of religion and where you fit in the world.” Young-adult author/historian Gabrielle Moss quips about the book: “Come for the masturbation. Stay for the empowerment.”

Judy says that although she supported the feminism movement that flourished in the 1970s at the same time as her career flourished, she was not an outspoken, public supporter. She says she wanted to march in protests and burn bras, like many feminists did at the time, “but I didn’t. I could be fearless in my writing in a way [that] in my own life I could not.

Among her other bestsellers are the aforementioned “Deenie,” whose title character has scoliosis and wears a brace; 1974’s “Blubber,” which covered issues of bullying and body shaming; and 1975’s “Forever…,” perhaps her most controversial young-adult book, because it had descriptions of unmarried 18-year-olds having sex with each other. It’s common for today’s young-adult books to have frank descriptions of teen sexuality, but back in 1975, it was unprecedented.

Judy says that even with all of her success, she’s always had many critics and opponents. “Some people weren’t necessarily wishing me well,” she wryly comments. Judy says one of the questions she would often get from literary snobs was: “When are you going to write a real book?”

After “Deenie” was published, she says a male school principal told her that male masturbation was normal, but female masturbation was not normal. During the worst of the criticism that she got from people who wanted to ban her books, Judy says that she was getting death threats, “which I took very seriously.”

At the height of Judy’s fame in 1975, she decided to end her first marriage. All she will say about why she and her first husband John were incompatible is this comment: “I married a man who, like my mother, never talked about his feelings.” Judy remembers feeling stifled in her marriage at the time: “Enough of this. I have to get out of here. I have to live.”

By her own admission, she jumped too quickly into another marriage after her first divorce. Her second husband was a London-based scientist named Thomas Kitchens. That marriage ended in divorce in 1978. Blume says her biggest regret in life is deciding to uproot her kids to live in England during this doomed marriage.

“I didn’t know what I was doing,” Judy comments on her second marriage. “I was rebelling in the stupidest way. It was very rough, not just for me but my kids. I still have guilt about that. The honest thing was to admit I had made a terrible mistake … Through all the worst times in my life, I’d been able to write, and my writing has gotten me through.”

Judy has been happily married to her third husband, George Cooper, since 1987. She describes him as “easygoing” and “non-judgmental.” Together, they own the retail store Books & Books in Key West, Florida. They are frequently in the store and make themselves accessible to customers and other visitors. The documentary includes footage of the couple greeting many of these people and interacting with employees, such as Michael Nelson and Emily Berg. Judy’s biological children are not in the movie, but Judy’s stepdaughter Amanda Cooper is briefly interviewed in the documentary.

Speaking of fans and admirers, one of the best parts of the documentary is how it shows that Judy considers her fan mail to be among her most treasured possessions and some of her fans to be among her closest friends. She reads some of her fan mail out loud and is obviously still emotionally touched by people telling her how her books have changed their lives and made them feel less alone in the world. Judy has kept so much of her fan mail, in 2017, Yale University acquired 50 years’ worth of her writing and fan mail to keep in the Yale archives.

Lorrie Kim, who has been writing to Judy since Kim was 9 years old, is one such superfan who became a friend. The documentary shows Judy attending Kim’s graduation from Bryn Mawr College. Karen Chilstrom, who’s been writing to Judy since Chilstrom was 12, shares her traumatic family history of having a brother who sexually abused her and who then committed suicide. Chilstrom says of how her friendship with Judy developed: “She saw a person who was hurting, and she didn’t give up on me.”

The documentary has mention of Judy’s foray into adult-oriented novels—most notably 1978’s “Wifey,” which covered the topic of marital infidelity. Judy also talks about how she’s said no to numerous lucrative offers to turn her books into movies because she’s so protective of her work. Her 1981 young-adult novel “Tiger Eyes” (which was inspired by her own real-life experiences of her father’s death) is one of the few of her books that has been made into a movie. The 2013 “Tiger Eyes” movie, starring Willa Holland and directed by Judy’s son Lawrence, was a low-budget independent film that flopped.

Many fans of Judy’s books talk about how her books helped them learn about many of life’s issues that are larger than a girl worrying about if she’ll be popular in her school. Jones comments on the impact that “Blubber” had on her: “It made me understand that just being a bystander to cruelty made you cruel.”

Other fans and associates interviewed in the documentary include comedian/media personality/author Samantha Bee, author Jacqueline Woodson, screenwriter/producer Anna Konkle (“PEN15”), author Cecily von Ziegesar (“Gossip Girl”), author Mary H.K. Choi, book publisher/editor Beverly Horowitz, author Alex Gino, sex educator Rachel Lotus and author Jason Reynolds. There are also numerous children of various races who are shown reading from her books out loud.

“Judy Blume Forever” is more of a “fan appreciation” documentary than a “fan worship” documentary. The movie doesn’t shy away from including criticism of Judy’s work, although that criticism is mostly shown in archival clips. One of the more memorable clips is from 1984, when Judy appeared on the CNN talk show “Crossfire” for a heated discussion with conservative media pundit Pat Buchanan, who was one her most outspoken critics. In the documentary, Judy comments on this “Crossfire” appearance: “It was a very strange experience.”

The documentary also mentions the uproar that some people had because of a line in Judy’s 1993 young-adult book “Here’s to You, Rachel Robinson.” The line was “Here’s to my fucking family.” This was in 1993, when most kids had access to movies and TV shows with vulgar language on cable TV and home video releases, but book publishers were still skittish about putting profanity in books geared to tweens and teens. Judy says that her editor told her that she would have full support from the editor on her decision to keep that line in the book. Judy describes her former book editor Richard “Dick” Jackson (who died at the age of 84 in 2019) as “the best editor in the world.”

The documentary probably would been more interesting if it had current interviews with Judy’s critics, especially since book banning (particularly in schools and in libraries) has been having a resurgence in recent years. Not surprisingly, Judy is vehemently in support of writers’ rights. Even with the absence of recent criticism of Judy’s work, “Judy Blume Forever” doesn’t feel like it’s an incomplete movie. The documentary undoubtedly shows that Judy Blume, who is a master of soul-baring storytelling, is indeed the best person to tell her own life story.

Amazon Studios released “Judy Blume Forever” in select U.S. cinemas on April 21, 2023, the same day that the movie premiered on Prime Video.

Review: ‘Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.,’ starring Rachel McAdams, Abby Ryder Fortson and Kathy Bates

April 20, 2023

by Carla Hay

Rachel McAdams and Abby Ryder Fortson in “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.” (Photo by Dana Hawley/Lionsgate)

“Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret.”

Directed by Kelly Fremon Craig

Culture Representation: Taking place in 1970, in New Jersey and New York City, the comedy/drama film “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.” (based on Judy Blume’s 1970 novel) features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: In a period of time when Margaret Simon goes from 11 to 12 years old, she worries about making friends at her new school, reaching puberty, and dealing with family issues that have to do with her parents’ interfaith marriage. 

Culture Audience: “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.” will appeal primarily to fans of the novel on which the movie is based and family-friendly movies about adolescent girls.

Abby Ryder Fortson, Amari Price, Elle Graham and Katherine Kupferer in “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.” (Photo by Dana Hawley/Lionsgate)

Even though Judy Blume has authored many bestselling novel (most in the young adult genre), not many of these books have been made into feature films. The movie adaptation of Blume’s 1970 novel “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.” is a delightful and faithful version of the beloved book. It’s not edgy, but it has accessible and well-done depictions of family angst, adolescent self-discovery and personal growth.

Written and directed by Kelly Fremon Craig, the comedy/drama “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.” has the benefit of a very talented cast that does justice to all the complex emotions that are described in the book. Because the story takes place in 1970, it recalls a simpler time in America, when children did not have to deal with the traumas of cyberbullying and school mass shootings. At the same time, children back then had less resources and less options on how to get information on issues about growing up. Despite the “quaint” aspects of the story, “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.” still has relatable topics that are timeless, especially to girls and women.

The movie “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.” begins with the title character Margaret Simon (played by Abby Ryder Fortson), who has no siblings, feeling uprooted and unsettled. Her father Herb Simon (played by Benny Safdie) has gotten a job promotion, so he and his wife Barbara Simon (played by Rachel McAdams), who is Margaret’s compassionate mother, have decided to move from their New York City apartment to a larger home in New Jersey. The move is only a less than 50 miles away, but it might as well be a long-distance move, as far as Margaret is concerned.

Margaret, who celebrates her 12 birthday during the course of the story, worries about leaving her current friends behind and whether or not she’ll make friends in her new school. The move also means that Margaret won’t be able to spend as much time with Herb’s widowed mother Sylvia Simon (played by Kathy Bates), who lives in New York City and has a close emotional bond to Margaret. Sylvia is the only grandparent in Margaret’s life.

It’s later revealed that Barbara’s parents (who are conservative Christians) disapproved of Barbara marrying Herb, just because Herb is Jewish. Barbara’s parents, who live in Ohio, practically disowned Barbara because of this difference in religion. Barbara has been estranged from her parents for years. As a result, Herb and Barbara have decided not to raise Margaret in any religion and have told Margaret that she can decide which religion (if any) she wants to choose when she’s an adult.

Margaret is worried about other things besides moving to a new place. Many of her female peers are starting to grow breasts and get their menstrual periods. Margaret hasn’t had those biological developments yets, and she’s terrified that she’ll be a considered a “freak” if she’s a late bloomer. Much of the story is about Margaret getting involved in some hijinks (and a lot of talking to God) about wanting to become biologically developed by the time she becomes a teenager.

The movie also prominently features Barbara’s self-discovery and coming to terms with her family issues. Because Herb is earning more money from his job promotion, Barbara has decided to give up her job as an art teacher and become a homemaker. It allows her to spend more time at home and notice more of what’s going on with Margaret, who goes back and forth between confiding in her mother and hiding her true feelings from her mother.

On the day that the Simon family moves into their New Jersey house, a talkative neighbor girl with bossy and elitist tendencies comes over unannounced and invites Margaret to play in the yard sprinklers with her. Nancy Wheeler (played by Elle Graham) considers herself to eb the “queen bee” of her small clique at the school that she and Margaret attend. Nancy invites Margaret into a “secret club” that includes two other students from the school: easygoing Janie Loomis (played by Amari Price) and slightly nerdy Gretchen Potter (played by Katherine Kupferer).

Margaret makes fast friends with this group of girls. But she finds out that being part of this “secret club” comes with a social price. One of the club’s “rules” is that all of the members have to tell each other very private things, such as which boys they have crushes on and when they get their menstrual periods. Nancy is also a catty gossip who spreads unfounded promiscuity rumors about a classmate named Laura Danker (played by Isol Young), who is taller than most of the students and has all the physical developments of a woman.

A lot of stories with these types of adolescent would make a lot of the conflicts center on rivalries to get the attention of boys. There’s a small subplot about Margaret seeming to have a mutual attraction to a “nice guy” classmate nickname Moose Freed (played by Aidan Wojtak-Hissong), who is a friend of Nancy’s bratty older brother Evan Wheeler (played by Landon Baxter). However, the movie is much more focused on the female bonding, such as the relationships that Margaret has with her new friends, as well as those with her mother Barbara and grandmother Sylvia.

If these female relationships are the heart of the story, Margaret’s evolving relationship with God is the soul of the story. Just like in the book, Margaret talks to God during moments when she feels the most hope, fear, confusion and joy. She has to reckon with her evolving feelings about religion when a teacher named Mr. Benedict (played by Echo Kellum) encourages her to choose religion as her subject for an assigned class project where the student can choose which topic to research.

Ryder Fortson gives an utterly charming performance in “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.” She isn’t overly perky, not is she an insufferable grouch. She’s completely convincing as the Margaret character in the way that Blume depicted her in the book. McAdams and Bates also have standout moments in their roles as family matriarchs who are very different from each other but share a similar fierce love for Margaret.

The movie gets occasionally dull and repetitive. This story is not going to endear itself to anyone who will get tired of hearing Margaret mope about how her breasts aren’t growing as fast as she wants to them to grow. And there’s a useless subplot about Barbara volunteering for too many parent-teacher association committees that are overseen by Nancy’s mother Jan Wheeler (played by Kate MacCluggage), who likes to think of herself as the high-society maven of the mothers in the community. (Blume has a cameo in the movie as a dog-walking neighbor.) Jan ends up overloading Barbara with work.

“Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.” is certainly told through the lens of middle-class privilege, because it’s about girls who go to summer camp and never have to worry about being homeless or not having enough to eat. If people want a dark and depressing movie about adolescents, this isn’t it. But “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.” delivers what it intends in offering a wistful and nostalgic look at adolescent girlhood in early 1970s America but remaining relatable to anyone who goes though a journey of self-identity.

Lionsgate will release “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.” in U.S. cinemas on April 28, 2023. A sneak preview of the movie was shown in select U.S. cinemas on April 19, 2023.

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