Rare is any movie about the plight of a junior high schooler, let alone one who is a theater geek. That’s what makes BETTER NATE THAN EVER so special. Writer/director Tim Federle tells a semiautobiographical tale about Nate, a gung-ho kid bent on becoming a Broadway musical legend and going through life as if he’s already a star and the world is his stage. It’s cheeky fun, with tons of in-jokes about musicals from A CHORUS LINE to WICKED, but it’s also a shrewd portrayal of a unique kid whom some admire while others bully for being different. All told, it’s a brave choice by Disney + to make it and here’s hoping that families watch it together on the streaming service starting today as it’s not only fun but comes with inherent teachable moments too.
Nate (Rueby Wood) wakes up each day, ready to embrace all that’s possible as if he’s Tracy Turnblad at the beginning of the stage musical HAIRSPRAY. Nate’s inner voice is one that sings and dances, let alone channels Robert Preston, Gwen Verdon, and George Benson’s “On Broadway” hit. The opening even cleverly nods to Bob Fosse’s film ALL THAT JAZZ with that song choice, one of dozens upon dozens of references to films and shows that clearly influenced Federle, and his ‘stand-in’ Nate.
The boy is different, to say the least, and that gets him ridiculed by some at school, but it makes him all the more lovable to his BFF Libby (Aria Brooks). They join forces to get through the day as both are outsiders, a bit odd, and quite precocious. One of the film’s instant pluses is that the love story here is platonic and does not try to force any boy meets girl tropes onto the material. Soon enough, these two peas in a pod discover that open auditions are being held in NYC for a musical version of Disney’s LILO & STITCH. Naturally, Nate sees this opportunity as his big chance. He just needs to trek to the Big Apple to make it happen.
He and Libby decide to lie to his parents, played by Norbert Leo Butz and Michelle Federer, as well as his posturing jock brother Anthony (Joshua Bassett). As their plan falls into place, Nate and Libby face twists and turns along their journey to the Great White Way and it wouldn’t be a Disney kids’ vehicle if there weren’t a lot of broad schtick and pratfalls tossed in with the wisecracks. At least Wood and Brooks know how to pull off such silliness with aplomb. Meanwhile, Federle piles on the show biz wisecracks to keep the theater aficionados along for the ride.
In New York, Nate’s Aunt Heidi (Lisa Kudrow) appears and she adds zing to the fun and gravity to the family story. Estranged from Nate’s brood, Heidi is a down-on-her-luck actress, and she provides a lot of sage wisdom to Nate about the realities of the biz. Kudrow makes the most of her part, adding equal parts sarcasm and sweet charity to her role.
Nate may be naïve, but he’s no bumpkin. And he is talented. Thankfully, the film shows him quickly grasping that skills aren’t enough to make it, and Federle wisely paints an often painful portrait of the profession. He also is smart to give Libby her own dreams too. The filmmaker shrewdly adds dimension to Nate’s family as well, though I wish he had let the uber-talented Butz cut loose some more. Where is the sublime comic that stole the show in the Broadway runs of DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS and CATCH ME IF YOU CAN? (He won Best Actor in a Musical Tonys for both!)
The songs and the dancing are cute if not as clever as they could be, but the dialogue has some real Neil Simon snap to it. At times, you may question how much a junior high kid born in this century would know so many theatrical musicals from the 1950s like REDHEAD, but I suppose that makes Nate all the savvier. Federle doesn’t explain how Nate knows such obscure shows so well, he just does.
And without underlining things too heavily, the filmmaker manages to make bold statements about self-acceptance and courage, providing a beacon for those who are like Nate and may be worried about their place in the world. There’s a bit too much schmaltzy Disney gleam around the edges, but most of this material is grounded and adult. Federle won awards for his book, and his adaptation hits the same smart notes throughout. BETTER NATE THAN EVER does everyone involved proud and it’s as inspiring as it is fun. Bravo!