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Disney+ Review: Better Nate Than Ever

April 4, 2022

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Nate Foster (Rueby Wood), the title character in Disney’s surprisingly charming Better Nate Than Ever, is an honest to goodness theatre kid. You know, the sort that sings into his hairbrush, memorizes Fiddler on the Roof, and fantasizes about winning a Tony. He has big Broadway dreams, if only he could get cast as the lead in his school musical first.

Nate is a precocious, flamboyant kid who doesn’t exactly fit in at his middle school in Pittsburgh. He’s bullied at school, with other boys calling him “Natey the lady,” and even his track star older brother Anthony (Joshua Bassett) seems ashamed of him for wearing lip gloss.

When Nate has his dreams crushed and doesn’t even get cast as Lincoln’s understudy in the school’s big musical about the 16th president, his best friend Libby (Aria Brooks) comforts him with even better news. There are plans to turn Disney’s Lilo & Stitch into a Broadway musical (it’s not a real thing outside the film, but they wrote a song for it and everything), and they are holding open auditions for it. The only hitch is that the auditions are in New York.

With his parents (Michelle Federer and Norbert Leo Butz) conveniently away for the weekend, Nate and Libby hatch a plan to sneak away, and hop on a bus to Manhattan. It’s in New York City where much of the film takes place, including a delightful, impromptu performance of George Benson’s “On Broadway” in Times Square. Nate also reconnects with his Aunt Heidi (Lisa Kudrow, who is delightful in the role), herself a failed Broadway actress who now runs a catering business, and hasn’t been in touch with the family for years after having a falling out with Nate’s mom.

Directed by Tim Federle, who adapts his own middle school book for the screen which was in turn inspired by his own childhood as a theatre-loving kid growing up in Pittsburgh, Better Nate Than Ever serves as a sincere tribute to theatre kids everywhere. While it’s the sort of film that could have easily felt like too much, it’s actually surprisingly sweet. Yes, the story is about as predictable as they come, but it’s told with a lot of heart, and Federle keeps the film moving with a mix of kid-friendly humour and heartwarming moments.

Wood, making his film debut after starring in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory on Broadway, delivers an energetic performance in the title role. He feels like a star in the making, handling the film’s real and imagined musical numbers with aplomb. The film is also somewhat groundbreaking in the way it presents Nate as a pretty openly queer kid, without making it about his sexuality or sexualizing him in any way. He makes it clear that his feelings towards Libby will remain platonic, but that’s about it, and Federle handles it in a way that is very innocent and matter of fact.

This is what LGBTQ+ representation in a family film centred around an adolescent protagonist can and should look like, and it’s coupled with a positive and pretty universal message about being yourself and the value of following your dreams. In short, Better Nate Than Ever is a real charmer of a family movie, and a pleasant surprise all around.

Better Nate Than Ever is now available to stream exclusively on Disney+.

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