How is it one of the more upbeat trends Disney has committed to in its recent history is a string of streaming-friendly films with their roots based in youth literature? With what all that concept’s been up against in the grand scheme, it’s often a welcome breath of air. First Stargirl, then Flora and Ulysses, and now a third in this line that speaks, if not also screams, to both deep readers, and theater kids. The overlooked heroes of the public school system, whose drive and gumption should be a lesson for all. If that is the only idea to gain from the experience of Better Nate than Ever, it’ll still have done its job, with a glorious off-Broadway flair.
The Nate (newcomer Rueby Wood) in question is a rather atypical eighth grader looking to keep his head low while getting in on the cast for an autumn musical on Abe Lincoln, alongside close friend Libby (Aria Brooks). When that falls through, a chance opportunity lands at their feet with a Broadway musical adaptation of Lilo and Stitch holding open casting. The pair take a few crafty risks getting out of Pittsburgh and onto Manhattan, grateful his parents (Norbert Leo Butz and Michelle Federer) are off on an anniversary trip, and brother Anthony (Joshua Bassett) is embroiled in weekend athletics. All the cards are in place for him to take this chance, and maybe go all the way for a spot in the cast. If only he didn’t let attention hit him so easily, and his theater actress aunt Heidi (Lisa Kudrow) took the situation a little more clerically.
First time feature writer/director Tim Federle (High School Musical: The Musical: The Series) is effectively reconnecting with his inner social outcast, having lived through climbing that upper education ladder as a theater kid, later turning that into a YA novel, and now. Who didn’t have a wall in their room adorned by memorabilia, and a framed headshot of Bernadette Peters (or similar) growing up? Not everyone, obviously. Nate’s certainly different than others, making him an eloquent target for reprisal, slight discern by his dad. The kid’s bordering between wanting to fly in the right social group and keeping his head low to survive to 9th grade. It’s a wild crossroads he’s navigating, with Federle reopening both turmoil and joy with one sharp bandage rip.
If nothing else, Nate is lovingly down to earth for all of its big stage inventiveness. It’s certainly one step above wandering around territory often best served by a Disney Channel movie. Here, the emotions are all very real when zig-zagging through the Great White Way with wide eyed exultation. It is a little formulaic, an overly familiar sort with the middling brother, whom Bassett nails the tropes down to a capital T; the misdirected parents; and the girl-power bestie, which Brooks makes a winning turn with, often overshadowing her counterparts. If Home Alone were less about security and more in the vein of Fame, there’d be your mixture, fully embracing all of its set pieces, just as much as its music, credited to Gabriel Mann and songwriter Lyndie Lane. It’s strict on that concoction, but proud of it.
Not too many family-oriented musicals can wear that badge, leave that room to grow a smile, and show a mirror into how tough, near-impossible the realm of big city theater can be to cut into. Federle sees that avenue to poke a little fun, but then cover differing perspectives of the same dream. Kudrow brings in a smidgeon of experience, burned out by her day job as a caterer and her persistence to stay relevant while aging gracefully. She’s a treat, answering back to Wood’s youthful enthusiasm, as well as his mature sense of fear and anxiety. One can’t get by on quirks, a strong voice, and firmly remembered Fiddler shin dips alone. Wood delivers more than asked, a captivating performance doing just enough to nudge us out of a formula trap.
When this film does escape that wall, and go full on musical mode, effusively handled on lenses and light level by Declan Quinn (Hamilton), it goes all in. Federle finally seeks closure for his middle school past, leaving the door open for Wood to figuratively do the same. Perhaps a little modernized to factor in the social media sphere, as a small production number in Times Square will attest. Better Nate than Ever takes its sweet time in approaching its comical, heart-laden core. Once there, we find plenty to keep the strings strumming, and those vocal cords alert and prepared. As a theater kid myself in high school, its rigors and conquests never leave the mind, so that’s why it kept me engaged to its admittedly sappy finish line. At the very least, it’s a real love letter to the triumph of standing on a stage and leaving everything on it. As legitimate theater regains its pre-pandemic stronghold, a story like this is doing its part to remind audiences of that duality between struggle and reward. (B+; 3.5/5 Horns Up!)
Better Nate than Ever streams on Disney Plus April 1; rated PG for thematic elements, a suggestive reference and mild language; 93 minutes.