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Better Nate Than Ever review: A teen’s life in cartoon motion

They don’t make kids like Nate Foster anymore. Armed with a need to razzle and dazzle, Nate has an infectious energy and steadfast determination. Underneath a gawky exterior, there’s a star just waiting to be discovered. Instead of dreaming of TikTok stardom or reality TV fame, however, the only thing the 13-year old boy wants to be is the lead of his own big-budget Broadway musical. Where’s the harm in that?

In the slight but exhaustingly charming Disney+ original movie Better Nate Than Ever, the answer is, of course, none. If the destination is obvious, the journey to it has just enough spark to make it marginally interesting, even when stereotypes about New York City, sassy best friends, and spinster aunts are dragged out of mothballs.

A star is (still being) born

Nate stands atop a marquee in Better Nate Than Ever.

From the opening scene set to George Benson’s cover of “On Broadway” to the many, many references to Wicked, it’s clear that Nate (Rueby Wood) loves the Great White Way. Stuck in a small Pennsylvania town, Nate tries his best to fulfill his stage-bound dreams by trying out for the lead role ofAbraham Lincoln. After failing to get cast as even the understudy, Nate and his best (and only) friend, Libby (Aria Brooks), concoct a plan to make Nate’s dream come true: He’ll audition for the lead role of Stitch in a forthcoming Broadway production of Lilo & Stitch. After tellng Nate’s working-class parents (Norbert Leo Butz and Michelle Federer, two Broadway vets who are married in real life) and wrestler brother (High School Musical: The Musical: The Series‘ Joshua Bassett) that he’ll be spending the weekend with Libby, the middle schoolers hop on a bus to the Big Apple to pursue their dreams.

Antics, of course, ensue, and the film has fun with juxtaposing the harsh reality of New York City, with its bored Duane Reade cashiers and trash-covered streets, with Nate’s idealized version of it, which is straight out of On the Town. In need of an adult to sponsor his audition, Nate calls on his estranged Aunt Heidi (Lisa Kudrow), an actress who does more catering than Shakespeare, to help him out. Secrets are revealed, hearts are broken and mended, and would it surprise you if I told you that everything works out in the end?

Beyond the stage

Nate and Libby smile at each other in Better Nate Than Ever.

If the plot is routine, and it is, the direction manages to breathe enough life into the movie to make it enjoyable. The director, Tim Federle, knows the material very well; After all, he wrote the young adult novel the screenplay is based on. He nails Nate’s musical numbers, drawing on inspirations from Singin’ in the Rain to Rent without being too obvious about it, and infuses the film with a cartoon-like energy that gives it a zip normally not seen in movies like this. And he clearly loves New York and Broadway too, both what they are in real life and what young dreamers like Nate imagine them to be like. It’s the rare Disney film that can make a good running joke out of struggling actors’ preferred borough of residence (Queens).

The acting is what you expect it to be from a Disney+ movie: All over the place and mostly not vey good. As Nate, Wood sells his character’s naiveté and determination without being too cute. Of small stature and and possessing a tinny voice not yet affected by puberty, Nate is constantly being challenged by the big dreams he wants to achieve, and Wood is convincing enough to make Nate’s plight palatable — you want the little tyke to succeed.

As Libby, Brooks struggles to elevate above the “best friend” clichés her character is saddled with. Butz and Federer make enough of an impression in their brief screen time to make you wish they had bigger roles, and Bassett is simply unconvincing as a high school jock who seemingly hates, but really loves, his brother. Worst of all is, surprisingly, Kudrow, who overdoes her Phoebe tics and makes her Aunt Heidi come across as mentally unstable. It doesn’t help that’s she saddled with one of the worst ’80s wigs you’ve ever seen.

Don’t say gay … literally

Nate holds his hands against a car window in Better Nate Than Ever.

Better Nate Than Ever is ultimately a throwaway movie, fine enough for kids and bearable for parents, and it isn’t particularly notable … except it’s being released at the moment The Walt Disney Company is being criticized for its lackluster response to Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill. In defending his company’s politically neutral position, CEO Bob Chapek mentioned Black Panther, Pose, Encanto, and other Disney-produced products, saying “all of [Disney’s] diverse stories are our corporate statements — and they are more powerful than any tweet or lobbying effort.”

There’s no doubt Better Net Than Ever qualifies as one these diverse stories. After all, Nate loves theater, can recite a Designing Women monologue by heart, has a rainbow-colored lucky rabbit’s foot, and gently lets down Libby, who harbors a secret crush on him, by telling her he doesn’t love her — or any girl — that way. In other words, Nate is gay, and yet this word is never clearly uttered onscreen. Don’t say gay indeed.

It’s 2022, and it’s ridiculous that a movie directed by an openly gay man, from a novel with an openly gay protagonist, and with a lead character who loves musical theatre and Bernadette Peters for goodness sake, still has to convey his gay identity through winks and nudges. This is the reason why the reaction to Disney’s neutral stance was so heated. It’s not enough to be neutral anymore. Nate is better off being gay, and saying it loudly and proudly without any tortured metaphors or veiled insinuations, than having no identity at all.

Better Nate Than Ever premieres on Disney+ on April 1.

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