Director: Tim Federle
Writer: Tim Federle
Starring: Rueby Wood, Lisa Kudrow, Aria Brooks, Joshua Bassett
Synopsis: 13-year-old Nate Foster fantasizes about becoming a big Broadway star. He and his best friend Litty mastermind a daring trip to New York City to audition for “Lilo and Stitch: The Musical”.
One of the great middle grade novel discoveries of 2013 was Better Nate Than Ever, written by Tim Federle. The voice of Nate in that book is humorous and true, and you can’t help but cheer through every page as you witness this charming kid go after his seemingly impossible dream. The novel, which was followed by Federle’s equally strong sequels Five, Six, Seven, Nate! and Nate Expectations, was also a breakthrough in LGBTQ middle grade fiction, with the protagonist not giving himself any labels yet at age thirteen but recognizing he might have feelings toward the same sex.
And now, nine years since the novel’s debut, we have the film adaptation of Better Nate Than Ever, written and directed by Federle, now available on Disney Plus. Although it doesn’t quite match the charm of the book and sometimes has a rushed, overly glossy texture to the narrative, the film has a lot of heart, and the perfectly cast Rueby Wood is a genuine discovery in the title role.
Nate Foster lives in a Pennsylvania suburb, trying to survive middle school as he dreams of Broadway stardom. When his best friend Libby (Aria Brooks) tells him of auditions being held in New York City for Lilo & Stitch: The Musical (which, I might add, was E.T. The Musical in the novel), Nate runs away from home and takes a bus with Libby to New York. Along the way, he bumps into his aunt Heidi (Lisa Kudrow), who hasn’t talked to his mom in a decade and whose own acting desires have mostly been put on hold. When Nate’s brother Anthony (Joshua Bassett) discovers his whereabouts, he drives to the Big Apple to bring him home—but will Nate be able to make his all-important callback that could change his whole life?
This cheery, feel-good story goes down as smooth as a strawberry milkshake, director Federle taking much of the same style of his entertaining Disney series High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, which also features Bassett, offering high energy musical dream sequences, Nate’s first over-the-top audition that gets him noticed, and a completely unbelievable but still cute number where Nate belts out “On Broadway” in the middle of Times Square. Federle pitched this film to Disney as Ferris Bueller’s Day Off for Broadway kids, and so, just like in that John Hughes comedy classic, you have to suspend your disbelief at times, but once you do, it’s a lot of fun.
Adding some emotional weight around the halfway mark is Kudrow, who beautifully inhabits the novel’s most interesting character, Heidi, a woman in her fifties who’s still going after the occasional acting job while also recognizing her time in the spotlight has likely passed. Her quiet scenes with Nate are some of the few where the narrative feels more realistic, showing an honest depiction of a person who has lost a piece of themselves in pursuit of a life-long dream.
The whole ensemble is strong, especially Brooks as the supportive Libby who loves Nate for who he is, and Bassett, always a warm light on the High School Musical series, who turns Anthony into so much more than a one-note character.
But it’s Rueby Wood who makes the film work as well as it does, giving Nate the believable confidence and needed quirkiness to pull us through. He’s exactly the way I read Nate in Federle’s novel, and it was a delight to see this wonderful character brought to life in the way Wood manages here. The wrong young actor could have made Nate insufferable, but Wood plays the character at the perfect level, not too over-the-top, not exactly subtle either, but just right to get us to root for him every step of the way.
The film could have used another fifteen minutes to let the narrative breathe, as well as pack a bigger emotional wallop in its final scenes. Part of me would have loved to see Federle capture this story in a lower-budget indie film, with fewer studio execs to answer to, and with less emphasis on the spectacle and more on the quieter character beats that lead Nate to the all-important callback.
But, of course, this film premiering on Disney Plus also means so many more young people will actually see it, and there’s no denying how many LGBTQ kids are going to fall in love with Better Nate Than Ever. It’s a breezy romp that many viewers likely will enjoy in the moment and then forget about days later, but those kids who Federle made this movie for, who he wanted to celebrate both in his novel and in this movie? They’re going to cherish every single minute.