Review: ‘Better Nate Than Ever,’ starring Rueby Wood, Aria Brooks, Lisa Kudrow, Joshua Bassett, Norbert Leo Butz and Michelle Federer

April 2, 2022

by Carla Hay

Rueby Wood (center) in “Better Nate Than Ever” (Photo by David Lee/Disney Enterprises Inc.)

“Better Nate Than Ever”

Directed by Tim Federle

Culture Representation: Taking place in Pittsburgh and New York City, the comedy/drama “Better Nate Than Ever” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans, Latinos and Asians) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A 13-year-old boy, who dreams of becoming a star of musicals, temporarily runs away with his best friend from their hometown of Pittsburgh to New York City, so that they can audition for prominent roles in the Broadway show “Lilo & Stitch: The Musical.”

Culture Audience: “Better Nate Than Ever” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in sentimental, family-friendly stories about finding one’s identity and self-acceptance.

Aria Brooks and Rueby Wood in “Better Nate Than Ever” (Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios/Disney Enterprises Inc.)

The comedy/drama “Better Nate Than Ever” is an unapologetically sentimental love letter to musical theater geeks and anyone struggling with self-esteem issues. Everything in the movie is entirely predictable, but the movie is so earnest in its heartwarming intentions, most viewers will be charmed by it. People who have a deep hatred of musical theater or schmaltzy stories about kids who love performing will think “Better Nate Than Ever” is very irritating, so it’s best to avoid this movie if sounds like it isn’t worth your time.

Written and directed by Tim Federle, “Better Nate Than Ever” is adapted from his 2013 novel of the same name. Federle is also the showrunner of the Disney+ series “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series.” Federle has said in many interviews that the title character of Nathan “Nate” Foster, who is 13 years old, is inspired by who Federle was when he was around the same age. In the book and in the movie, Nate is an unabashed fanatic of musicals. His biggest dream in life is to star in a Broadway musical.

Nate (played by Rueby Wood) lives in Pittsburgh with his parents Rex Foster (played by Norbert Leo Butz) and Sherrie Foster (played by Michelle Federer) and Nate’s brother Anthony Foster (played Joshua Bassett), who’s about 16 or 17 years old. Anthony is a popular athlete at his high school, and he thinks that musicals are a “wimpy” interest for boys to have. Nate has no interest in sports, and he’s somewhat of a social outcast at his middle school. Anthony sometimes acts like he’s embarrassed that Nate is his brother, and this type of rejection hurts Nate, but Nate tries not to let his hurt emotions show.

Nate’s best friend (and his only friend) at school is outspoken, confident and sassy Libby (played by Aria Brooks), who is the about the same age as Nate. Libby is also Nate’s biggest supporter in pursuing his dream of becoming a Broadway musical star. She has an interest in performing too, but she’s not as passionate about it as Nate is. Libby is very good at giving advice and coming up with ideas, so Nate often relies on her when he’s got a problem that he needs to solve or if he needs pep talks.

At school, Nate (who likes to wear lip gloss) is predictably the target of bullying. When Nate tries to take a seat on a school bus, a male student (played by Alex Barber) blocks Nate and sneers, “No more girls in this row.” When the bully steals Nate’s lucky rabbit’s foot, Nate fights back by hitting him. Nate gets more bullying in a few other parts of the movie.

Nate is the type of musical aficionado who can recite musical trivia by heart. He frequently sings songs from musicals out loud, and he practices his dance moves in front of mirrors at home. Nate’s school is staging a production called “Lincoln: The Unauthorized Rock Musical.” Nate has auditioned for the lead role of Abraham Lincoln. This audition is not shown in the movie, which opens on the day that Nate will find out if he was chosen for the role.

Nate is crushed when the casting results are posted, and he didn’t get the starring role that he desperately wanted. The teacher who made the decision tactfully tells Nate that Nate isn’t experienced enough to handle the lead role in this musical. As a consolation, Nate is offered the role of a background singer/dancer.

Around the time that Nate gets this disappointing news, Libby tells Nate about upcoming open auditions in New York City for the Broadway production “Lilo & Stitch: The Musical,” which will have a cast of mostly underage kids. Nate and Libby think it’s a good idea for them to audition for this Broadway musical. (In the “Better Nate Than Ever” book, Nate runs away to New York City to audition for “E.T.: The Musical.”)

And it just so happens that Nate’s parents Rex and Sherrie will be in West Virginia that weekend for a romantic getaway to celebrate their wedding anniversary. Anthony will be out of town that weekend for a sports meet. Nate and Libby hatch a plan to pretend that Nate will be staying at her house. Instead, Nate and Libby sneak off and take a bus to New York City to go to the auditions.

It’s never really mentioned what Nate’s parents do for a living, but the Fosters are a middle-class family who are going through a financial rough spot because Rex is currently unemployed. Sherrie is estranged from her older sister Heidi (played by Lisa Kudrow), who lives in New York City’s Queens borough. The two sisters no longer speak to each other because Sherrie thinks that Heidi abandoned the family to pursue a career on Broadway.

Meanwhile, Nate has a lot of admiration for Heidi and wishes that he could be just like Heidi. After a series of mishaps, Nate and Libby make it to the auditions, only to find out that an underage kid who auditions needs an adult guardian, for legal reasons. It just so happens that Heidi is available, and she reluctantly agrees to be the adult guardian for Nate and Libby.

Libby decides that being a performer isn’t really for her, so she decides to go back home to Pittsburgh, while Nate continues his pursuit of his Broadway dreams, with some help from Heidi. Nate finds out the reality that Heidi’s life isn’t as glamorous as Nate thought it was. Heidi is a struggling actress who lives alone in a small, one-bedroom apartment. She works for a catering company to pay her bills.

Nate turns out to be a plucky and optimistic kid who forges ahead, despite obstacles that get in his way. Many of these challenges test his confidence, but his love of performing is too strong for any skeptics and roadblocks to deter him. When Libby is away from Nate, she keeps in touch with him by phone to get updates on his audition journey.

Heidi is the type of person who starts off thinking that she’s not very good at taking care of kids. But as Nate and Heidi get to know each other better, they develop a newfound respect for each other. Heidi and Nate also begin to understand that the estrangement between Heidi and her sister Sherrie had repercussions on the family that went beyond the two sisters’ relationship with each other.

“Better Nate Than Ever” has some slapstick comedy that can be very corny, but it’s what you might expect from a Disney film. What isn’t typical for a Disney film is how the movie addresses Nate’s sexual identity without anyone in the movie ever giving Nate any specific identity labels. At 13 years old, Nate is too young to date anyone, by most standards.

However, there are signs that Nate and his loved ones know that he’s not heterosexual. People in his life describe him as “different” and not interested in dating girls. At various points in the movie, Nate goes out of his way to get merchandise in the style of the rainbow flag, which is the universal symbol for the LGBTQ+ community. For example, while he’s in New York City, Nate buys a rainbow-colored rabbit’s foot as a lucky charm.

“Better Nate Than Ever” shows these obvious signs without being preachy or heavy-handed about it. It’s all just presented as part of Nate’s natural identity. And although Nate gets some bullying for being “effeminate,” he embraces who he is and doesn’t try to change for anyone. That’s a positive message for people who go through life thinking that they have to pretend to be something they’re not, in order to be accepted.

As for the musical numbers, they are very contrived but play into fantasies that anyone might have of being the star of a musical. One of the standout musical scenes is when Nate attracts a crowd in Times Square as he does an impromptu performance of George Benson’s 1978 hit “On Broadway.” It’s a very corny scene but also very cute. Benson makes a cameo appearance as himself during this Times Square performance. Yes, it’s that kind of movie.

“Better Nate Than Never” has some obvious cross-marketing promotion of the real-life New Amsterdam Theatre, which is owned by Disney and is home to all of Disney’s Broadway musicals. In “Better Nate Than Ever,” the “Lilo & Stitch” musical’s final auditions take place at the New Amsterdam Theatre. The “Better Nate Than Ever” movie seems like it’s a marketing test to gauge public interest in Disney making the 2002 Disney animated film “Lilo & Stitch” into a Broadway musical in real life, since Disney has turned many of Disney’s hit animated movies into Broadway musicals.

“Better Nate Than Ever” is the feature-film debut of Wood, who makes a lasting impression as the effervescent and talented Nate. This is a movie where the casting choices make a huge difference in how likable the characters are, because it’s obvious that Wood lives and breathes musicals as much as Nate does. Most people can’t really fake that kind of passion. Wood is also a fantastic singer who really does look like he was born to star in a Broadway musical. In addition to “On Broadway,” he sings the show-stopping: “No One Gets Left Behind” (written by Lyndie Lane), and he performs a monologue from “Designing Women.”

Brooks brings her own unique pizzazz to her role as Nate’s best friend Libby, a character who is thankfully not written as just another two-dimensional sidekick. Libby goes through her own journey of self-identity and figuring out what her passion and talents are in life. Libby is also a good “reality check” to Nate when he gets too hyper or too sarcastic. A recurring comment she makes to Nate to watch his tone of voice is to tell him calmly, “Nate: Tone.”

Kudrow also does nicely in the movie as Nate’s aunt Heidi, who finds a kindred spirit in Nate because of his love of theater performing. Nate sees Heidi as a role model, but she feels like a misfit and a failure. Through Nate’s perspective, Heidi’s self-confidence is boosted when she begins to understand how her life has inspired someone in ways that she didn’t even think were possible. The tensions between Heidi and Sherrie are eventually dealt with exactly how you think they will be dealt with in this type of family-oriented movie, as are the tensions between brothers Nate and Anthony.

“Better Nate Than Ever” sticks to a familiar formula, but there are elements to the movie that are truly unique and heartfelt. Federle obviously wanted to make a movie that could speak to people who have ever felt misunderstood, rejected or doubted because of who they are. Despite a lot of cloying moments in “Better Nate Than Ever,” the movie succeeds in its intended message to celebrate people for being their authentic selves.

Disney+ premiered “Better Nate Than Ever” on April 1, 2022.

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