Based on the award-winning novel by Tim Federle, Better Nate Than Ever tells the story of 13-year old Nate Foster (Rueby Wood) who has big dreams of being on Broadway, but the only problem is that no one would take a chance on him. That is, until his best friend Libby (Aria Brooks) tells him about an opportunity to audition for a Broadway production of Disney’s Lilo & Stitch in New York City.
While his parents are away, Nate and Libby sneak out to the big city and run into Nate’s estranged Aunt Heidi, who also had big dreams of being a star. Together, they must figure out what they’re really fighting for in this crazy world of entertainment.
Federle, who is best known for his hit Disney+ series High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, wrote and directed the film based on his own experience as a theater kid in Pittsburgh. In a press conference for the film earlier this month, Federle revealed he never imagined his novel would become a film.
“Better Nate Than Ever started as a book almost a decade ago,” said Federle. “It was a big dream, but it was small [in] scale in the sense that — just getting published was a big deal to me. I was a former dancer. I never studied writing, and that alone was so big that to get the call from Disney saying, ‘We want to make this a big movie.’ [It was] absolutely thrilling and scary and exciting.”
Of course, nothing would have worked without a strong and talented cast, which Federle was able to gather. The film stars Brooks, HSMTMTS’ Joshua Bassett, Michelle Federer, Norbert Leo Butz, Lisa Kudrow, and newcomer Rueby Wood in the lead role of Nate.
“I’m so honored and excited to be able to portray this incredible role and [being] in this movie, it was just so amazing,” said Wood of his first feature film. “I loved every minute of it because working with Tim, Aria, Josh, and Lisa is just so amazing. I was just so incredibly happy.”
Although the film never explicitly states Nate’s sexuality, there are a lot of implications that he is gay and wanted to create a coming-of-age story for kids who never felt like they fit in — whether it be their sexuality or just not conforming to societal pressures.
“Yeah, it’s pretty autobiographical,” said Federle, “I was the last kid chosen for dodgeball every week in Pittsburgh throughout most of the ’90s. When I pitched the movie to Disney, I said it’s like Billy Elliot meets Ferris Bueller. I really wanted to create a family movie night that had a little something for everyone — one of those sort of classic coming-of-age stories. And, as a kid with big dreams, whether your dream is Broadway or to be a chess champion or to go to the Olympics, I think many people can relate to the idea of feeling different and wanting to find their people.”
Wood loves the underlying theme of the film of feeling like an “other” but finding his place in the world, “He wants to be himself and the whole story is about him learning how to be himself and who he is,” said Wood. “I feel like that’s really magical and really important. I was lucky to grow up in an amazing support system. I had the most loving group of people around me, and there’s a lot of kids and people out there who don’t have that and who feel like they don’t fit in.I just really hope that people can see this movie and watch Nate and really feel like they belong and they have a place in the world.”
This is why Federle chose to have Lilo & Stitch as the musical in the story that Nate auditions for. Like Stitch, who is an alien in an unknown planet, the musical represents Nate’s journey of not fitting in, but finding the family who accepts him.
“[Nate] does not feel like the other humans in his family or at his school,” said Federle. “And what I learned over the years is if you get enough outcasts together, you’re no longer an outcast — you’re actually a club. What I love about musicals is [that] I was a kid with big emotions, as I think all theater kids are — and secretly, all kids are, and musicals allow you to say and sing things that might feel too big when you’re little and figuring out why you’re so little with such big emotions. These songs are gonna make you cheer and they’re going to make you cry.”
Better Nate Than Ever premieres April 1 on Disney+.