It’s hard to not fall in love with Broadway-inspired films, especially ones that focus on growing up and trying to fit in someplace. Everybody’s Talking About Jamie and Billy Elliott are coming-of-age musicals of kids who are different, but still found a way to follow their dreams. Followed by fantastic music and fun dance sequences, these musicals tell a story for the ages and allow some kids to feel seen. Disney+’s upcoming original film Better Nate Than Ever does just that with a sweet story with some good songs.
Based on the novel by director/writer Tim Federle, best known for his work on High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, Better Nate Than Ever tells the story of 13-year-old Nate Foster (Rueby Wood) who dreams of becoming a famous Broadway star. Unfortunately, he’s never given the chance to showcase his talent. That all changes when his best friend Libby (Aria Brooks) takes him on a secret trip to the Big Apple to audition for the Broadway production of Lilo & Stitch. Hilarity ensues as he runs into his estranged aunt Heidi (Lisa Kudrow), a failed performer who left the family to attempt to make it on Broadway. Nate must pretend that he is given permission to be in New York in order to make it through to the final round of auditions.
Although the acting is a bit cheesy and the musical numbers (except the final song) were forgettable, the film doesn’t forget who their target audience is — young kids and their families. Federle’s direction for the film feels like a longer version of a High School Musical: The Musical: The Series — and that’s not a bad thing. Instead of feeling very grandiose like a musical adaptation, the film’s scale felt very small and contained – even during Nate’s dream sequences. Still, the message surrounding growing up and feeling out of place is there. Not only does he feel out of place at school, but also at home. The conflict between Broadway-loving tween Nate and his older athlete brother Anthony (HSMTMTS’ Joshua Bassett) adds more layers to the isolation that Nate feels – as Anthony always condescendingly questions Nate’s choices in life. Of course, like any feel-good story, they make up in the end in a really heartwarming way. But, for most of the story, Nate’s only real friend is Libby, who is in love with her bestie without realizing he hasn’t figured out his sexuality just yet.
Though the film never explicitly say gay or anything from the LGBTQ+ spectrum, it’s implied that Nate is gay and that everybody knows except Nate. I understand why the film chose not to address Nate’s sexuality. The story is focused on Nate’s dream and goals of becoming a star — not his love life. The character does acknowledge he’s “different” when telling her about his romantic feelings, but doesn’t press further. Still, it’s hard to fully appreciate what the story is trying to do during a time where LGBTQ+ rights are being stripped away on the daily, especially with the recent “Don’t Say Gay” bill in Florida. Nate is “different” but being gay doesn’t mean a person is an outsider. And, a film by Disney, whose CEO Bob Chapek donated to the politicians supporting the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, should really just say the word “gay.”
Wood is a delight to watch as Nate, who could have easily been seen as the annoying, tropey, overly-enthused theater kid. Instead, Nate is likable and easy to root for in the film. It honestly does make a difference who your lead actor is. Brooks is also fun to watch as the bestie who realizes her friendship with Nate will be just that — a friendship. Their dynamic works really well and feels very relatable. As for Kudrow, the film does waste her comedic abilities by not giving her more to play with. It’s great that Nate reminds her of why she went to New York in the first place, but it just felt really half-fast with her story. Not to mention that Anthony’s own storyline where he feels the pressure to always be perfect on the field is never fully addressed. Of course, there is always the sequel, which the novel has, but films should never bank on whether or not they’re going to be given a continuation of the story — unless it was done prior to the first film.
Overall, the film is very cute with a great premise and solid conclusion — that finale song is really beautiful. It’s great for young kids to watch with their families, but it just felt like it could have been more, especially if they wanted to expand their target audience.
Better Nate Than Ever premieres on April 1 on Disney+.