Review: Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret and Sisu
Up with girls, down with Nazis.
Margaret Simon is 11 years old and she's living in hell. Well, actually she's living in suburban New Jersey. But when you're on the cusp of womanhood and awaiting the arrival of certain physical signifiers of which there have so far been no signs at all, Margaret is here to tell you she's living in hell.
Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret is as fresh a take on the world of girls as Judy Blume's 1970 novel was in its time—which is to say the movie is uncommonly faithful to its source. It positions us in another era with its absence of smart phones and social media, and specifically in the early '70s with a soundtrack stocked with the Guess Who, George Harrison, and Norman Greenbaum. It also draws a colorful contrast between the funky Manhattan out of which we find Margaret (Abby Ryder Fortson) and her parents, Barbara (Rachel McAdams) and Herb (Benny Safdie), moving at the beginning of the film, and the sunny promised land across the Hudson River—a place of lawn sprinklers, yard sales, and other exotica—to which Herb's job is compelling them to relocate.
Fortson, who's not quite a newcomer (she played Paul Rudd's daughter in the Ant-Man movies), is a delightful screen presence, precocious in her ability to project both preteen insecurity and a stubborn determination to grow past it (as well as flashes of grade school cruelty). And she's very funny in negotiating the complex feelings called up in some scenes—like Margaret's mortifying first visit to a bra emporium (where the sales lady looks at her unassertive chest and says, "We don't have many that small") and the drugstore excursion in which she arrives at the checkout counter with her first box of menstrual pads just as a boy takes over the cash register.
The movie's writer-director, Kelly Fremon Craig (The Edge of Seventeen), has assembled a lively young cast, particularly Elle Graham as Margaret's mouthy new friend Nancy ("I live in the big house up the street"), and Katherine Mallen Kupferer as another new Jersey pal named Gretchen who feels that her nascent breasts "look like little wizard hats." And while God doesn't actually put in an appearance here, he's always on Margaret's mind. She seeks him out in a Jewish temple (symbol of her father's abandoned faith) and a Christian church (representing her mom's religious heritage), but to no avail. "Maybe the truth is, there's nobody up there," she says. God leaves her to work that out for herself.
One of the many pleasures to be found at the movies is the thrill of watching Nazis get blown away. Unfortunately, because the age of actual Nazis, with their gleaming jackboots and hateful sneers, is long past, opportunities to savor their extermination are now rare. Time was, we could rely on the Indiana Jones pictures to continue disposing of these scumbags, but that age is over, too.
Now, however, out of Finland, comes a new movie with all kinds of Nazis in it, and these guys do some fine dying—getting blown up, set afire, stabbed in the head. As always, their painful travails are a treat to watch.
The story is set in 1944, toward the end of World War II, when the Finnish army was engaged in driving German occupiers from their country and up into the frosty far-northern region of Lapland. (For purposes of this picture it's not crucial to know that the Finns had previously maintained a tactical alliance with Nazi Germany.)
In the movie, a detachment of Nazis, traveling by tank, with a small group of miserable female captives packed into a truck, has the bad luck (for them, not us) to encounter a grizzled old man named Aatami (Jorma Tommila). Aatami is a gold prospector, and the saddlebags on the horse he's riding are filled with gleaming nuggets, although the Nazis are unaware of this at first. Being Nazis, though, they know what to do with the old coot. "Fuck him up!" one of them yells (rather anachronistically, I thought, even though the movie's dialogue is largely in English). But there's another thing the Nazis don't know about Aatami. He's also a retired commando who killed more than 300 enemy soldiers in his fierce youth—and did it entirely on his own. As a German general advises, via long-distance radio, "He is one mean motherfucker that you do not want to mess with." (This doesn't sound very 1944-ish either, but let's not quibble.)
We soon see the truth of the general's warning as one soldier's severed leg goes flying through the air and another's head is crushed under a tank tread. Before long the female prisoners stowed in a truck manage to escape and join Aatami in kicking a whole bunch of Nazi butt. As you might imagine, this is most gratifying as well.
Sisu (which means a determination to never surrender in Finnish) has a low-budget vibe, but it's fun, not least because writer-director Jalmari Helander—who previously gave us a film about the hunt for a wild Santa Claus up in snowy Lapland—references various action classics throughout the movie. A fight on a truck is descended from Raiders of the Lost Ark and some close-ups of tense, grimy faces recall any number of Sergio Leone movies (as does an electric-guitar figure reminiscent of Ennio Morricone). There's even a scene in which a Nazi makes the sizable mistake of shooting Aatami's dog. Fans of John Wick (whose own movies are distributed by the same company handling this one) will know how unwise a move that is.