'Better Nate Than Ever' review: Earnest comedy packs ton of heart
Courtesy of Disney+
An endearing and wholesome movie that at first glance looked like another cheaply made film used to boost streaming subscribers, “Better Nate Than Ever” is far better than the average tween-targeted venture, and I’m not just saying that because I share a name with the main character. “Better Nate Than Ever” finds strength in the familiar: a coming-of-age film about a peppy middle schooler trying to follow his dreams of being a Broadway actor. It abides by all the classic Disney troupes, but with an infectiously engaging young cast of up and comers mixed in with the real-world relatability of striving for success, director Tom Federle gives this usually routine narrative a spice of life.
And considering Disney’s recently controversial approach to the hateful and discriminatory “Don’t Say Gay” in Florida, “Better Nate Than Ever” couldn’t arrive at a more opportune moment as the film deals heavily with identity and, in PG related terms, sexual orientation. It gives those plucky young kids who feel different some representation on screen and no matter how you divvy up the film’s loose cannon mechanics, that’s a win.
It helps Federle, who also wrote the book in which the movie is based on, has found the perfect young actor, Reuby Wood, in his first on-screen role, to harness the energy of Nate, a middle school theatre kid who just got rejected for the lead of the drama club’s performance of “Lincoln: The Musical.” Of course, judging by Nate’s flamboyant and persistent attitude, this kid will someday, somehow be a star. Everything aligns when Nate, along with his best friend Libby (Aria Brooks), catch wind of an open casting call for “Lilo and Stitch” the musical in New York City. Through some trickery and shifting perspectives, the two manage to hop a bus and run off to the big apple and take their shot. Once there, Nate’s quirky attitude gets the attention of the casting directors and suddenly our protagonist is in the running for what is surely a life changing gig as the adorable blue monster.
All the above works because Wood doesn’t let the energy tamper or wane and he’s charming in a way that elicits real emotion and not schlocky Disney mumbo jumbo. He’s the real deal. Credit to Federle for adapting this in a manner that suits his novel and the character as it’s vital and important to share the perspectives of adolescents in this evolving world. As someone who grew up singing showtunes himself, you can probably count on one hand where that was showcased predominantly in a movie.
Lisa Kudrow has a nice supporting turn playing Nate’s Aunt, an aspiring actress who didn’t show up to her own sister’s wedding because of a Broadway callback, who takes the tyke under her wing and gives him the tools and motivation to keep on living his truth. It might feel a tad manipulative because it is, but “Better Nate Than Ever” gives a voice to those struggling with their own passions. Sure, the stakes never feel like they rise to a place of seriousness and the entire movie hinges on a belabored audition process (which, in turn, undercuts some emotional levity) but thinking of the children who will see and relate to this movie can’t be ignored.
BETTER NATE THAN EVER debuts on Disney+ Friday, April 1st.