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Hollywood finally nailed the coming-of-age story in 2023

(From left) Samantha Lorraine, Sunny Sandler and Millie Thorpe in “You Are So Not Invited To My Bat Mitzvah.”Courtesy of Netflix

In this year’s earnest and charming “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret,” titular preteen Margaret (“Transparent” star Abby Ryder Fortson) pleads with the divine about the vagaries of growing up, which in her case include the prospect of moving to a new town as well as her desperate wish to speed through puberty into womanhood.

It’s a movie filled with small moments – finding friends at a new school, visits with grandma in the city – that add up to something much larger, tapping into a theme that kept coming up in entertainment this year: subtle, hilarious and heartfelt takes on the journey from child to adult, with all the awkwardness and jubilation that goes with it.

Of course, 2023 didn’t invent the coming-of-age movie, but perhaps, it nailed it. While this 70s-set adaptation of Judy Blume’s novel could have easily veered into cheesy territory, “Margaret” remains disarming and authentic, in no small part thanks to Fortson’s performance and those (try to avoid using “as well as” so much) of Rachel McAdams, who plays her frazzled but well-meaning mother, and Kathy Bates as the overbearing grandmother.

Kathy Bates and Abby Ryder Fortson “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.”Dana Hawley/Lionsgate

Deft and personable performances are also what ground Netflix’s take on Fiona Rosenbloom’s 2005 novel “You Are So Not Invited to My Bat Mitzvah,” which manages to skirt around some serious nepo baby favoritism to win over viewers with an insightful look at the intricate social hierarchies of middle school.

Produced by and costarring Adam Sandler, “Bat Mitzvah” also stars his daughters Sadie and Sunny Sandler and even features his wife Jackie. But his daughters especially manage to make viewers forget just how much of a Sandler family affair this is, getting us invested in their onscreen family and specifically Stacy’s (Sunny Sandler) conundrum when a cute boy at school – and a massive misunderstanding – cause her to get uninvited to her BFF’s bat mitzvah.

Margot Robbie, left, and Ariana Greenblatt, front right, in “Barbie.”Warner Bros. Pictures

In her all-too-familiar quest to fit in socially, Stacy is faced with shifting loyalties within friend groups at school, placing the viewer right there with her and calling to mind what those moments actually felt like for us all. The same goes for the much raunchier but still clever and appealing “Bottoms” – starring the natural and winsome Rachel Sennott – which combines classic teen angst tropes with “Fight Club,” and then puts a welcome queer spin on the proceedings.

And then there’s arguably the movie of the year, “Barbie,” which was grounded by a very real and relatable character arc that served as a counterweight to all the plastic-ness – namely the young Sasha (Ariana Greenblatt), who has clearly outgrown her Barbie phase and is trying to establish the parameters of her more grown-up identity when, along with her Mattel employee mother (America Ferrera), she is confronted with the “real life” doll herself (Margot Robbie). It’s through Sasha and her mother’s desire to create a safe and assured world in which she can grow, that “Barbie” is able to deliver its sometimes tongue-in-cheek but still encouraging feminist message.

Bella Ramsey in “The Last of Us.”Liane Hentscher/HBO

But this trend of bullseye portraits of fledgling adulthood extended beyond movies this year. In the hit series “The Last of Us,” based on the acclaimed video game, Pedro Pascal’s tortured loner Joel becomes the default father figure to Ellie (Bella Ramsey), a youth struggling to find a path forward in an apocalyptic world ravaged by a fungal zombie plague.

Late in the season, an episode titled “Left Behind” illuminates Ellie’s backstory in a bottle episode that felt more like a short film. In it, those same grisly social structures from high school depicted in the movies are seen in full force, with Ellie getting into a fight with a bully and then breaking out on her own. Later in the episode, she explores the “wonders” of the now-defunct modern world with Riley (“Euphoria’s” Storm Reid), a friend who suddenly becomes something more, cueing those dizzying effects of young love.

Much like in classic teen films like “Heathers,” “Clueless” and “Mean Girls,” the protagonists in this year’s quality crop of (as it happens, mostly female) coming-of-age stories navigate through and negotiate with the outside world while their identities are actively changing, which allows for awkward or even humiliating exchanges to come as easily as the heart-pounding blissful moments of first love – or something akin to it.

While not every project mentioned here will be remembered as much as some others once 2023 is in the rearview mirror, the best part is that movies like “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” and “You Are So Not Invited to My Bat Mitzvah” will always be available in their respective streaming homes for kids to find as they come of age, as well. Mazel tov, Hollywood. You’re growing up so fast!

“Barbie” and “The Last of Us” were produced by Warner Bros. Pictures and Max, respectively, which are owned by CNN’s parent company Warner Bros. Discovery.

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