“Better Nate Than Ever” (Disney), based on the middle-grade novel by gay writer Tim Federle (who also directed and wrote the screenplay), was made before Disney took a stand for LGBT folks after homophobic Florida Governor Ron DeSantis went on his infamous rampage.
It’s worth watching the hokey (even by Disney live-action movie standards) flick, a colorful love letter to theater kids everywhere, if for no other reason than knowing that conservative blood vessels burst with every viewing.
The bedroom walls of Pittsburgh-based 7th grader Nate (Rueby Wood) are covered in posters from vintage Broadway musicals. He has a framed photo of Bernadette Peters next to a faux Tony Award on his dresser. When the alarm on his phone goes off, he wakes to the message that the cast list for his school musical is being posted that morning.
Sadly, Nate’s hopes are dashed, beginning with a run-in with a school bully who takes his lucky green rabbit’s foot, and then learns that not only did he not get the lead, but he’s playing a tree in the chorus. Add to that his antagonistic relationship with older brother Anthony (out actor Joshua Bassett) and the confusion he inspires in his well-meaning parents Rex (Norbert Leo Butz) and Sherrie (Michelle Federer), and you get the feeling it sucks to be him.
However, the ever-resourceful Nate, and his BFF Libby (Aria Brooks) hatch a plan for him to sneak away to New York, while his parents are out of town, so that he can audition for the role of Stitch in a Broadway musical version of “Lilo & Stitch.”
Writer/director Federle has never met a trope he doesn’t like. He piles them on as if he’s making a sandwich at the Stage Door Deli. Not missing a trick, he includes the bus ride to New York City and arriving at Port Authority complete with a sudden rainstorm. There’s anxious Nate’s dream musical number about making it (“Big Time”), and then his being confronted with seasoned, and cruel, theater kids and their stage mothers. It wouldn’t be complete without the obligatory “coming out to the best friend sequence,” followed by the bad audition that results in – surprise – a callback.
Lisa Kudrow does her best to give Nate’s Aunt Heidi, a failed actress turned cater-waiter, some spark. There are even a few pleasant surprises, including Nate’s callback monologue being taken from “Designing Women,” and when a Tik Tok video of Nate singing with street musicians in Times Square goes viral. Heartstrings are tugged when Nate spends the night at Aunt Heidi’s apartment in Astoria (when she advises him to “find his light”), as well as when Anthony, Libby, and Aunt Heidi are on the balcony for Anthony’s second callback.
The predictable Disney happy ending paves the way for a potential movie sequel. After all, Federle didn’t write the second book in the Nate series, “Five, Six, Seven, Nate,” for nothing. Now streaming on Disney+.
Gregg Shapiro is the author of eight books including the poetry chapbook Fear of Muses (Souvenir Spoon Books, 2022). An entertainment journalist, whose interviews and reviews run in a variety of regional LGBTQ+ and mainstream publications and websites, Shapiro lives in Fort Lauderdale with his husband Rick and their dog Coco.