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    Better Nate Than Ever Features Queer Teen with Broadway Dreams

    By Gary M. Kramer–

    A Pittsburgh seventh grader’s Broadway dreams are at the heart of out gay writer/director Tim Federle’s plucky musical Better Nate Than Ever, now available on Disney+. Based on Federle’s 2013 young adult novel, this family film will speak—or rather, sing to—any queer theater kid.

    Nate Foster (Reuby Wood in his screen debut) is dejected (to put it mildly) when he is not cast as the lead—or even as the understudy—in his middle school play. But his best friend, Libby (Aria Brooks), soon offers him a better opportunity: to audition in an open casting for the Broadway musical of Lilo and Stitch. (In the book, it was the musical version of E.T.—but this is a Disney+ production and E.T. was Universal). Of course, the teens actually have to be in New York City for the audition.

    That problem finds a solution when Nate’s parents—Broadway stars and real-life couple Michelle Federer and Norbert Leo Butz—go away for the weekend. Libby and Nate take the opportunity for a secret road trip to the Big Apple. It’s Nate’s first time in the city, and he imagines Times Square to be something out of a musical. Cue a fun dream sequence, a catchy tune with splashy Broadway-style dancing. 

    But reality is a bit different as these unchaperoned kids quickly discover. Moreover, Nate needs a parent or guardian to audition, and when he runs into his estranged aunt Heidi (Lisa Kudrow)—herself an actress—he might get a break, but Nate also worries that his parents will find out about his (mis)adventure. Nate does manage to sneak into the audition, only have an embarrassing moment. His luck keeps getting better and worse from there.

    The plotting may be geared towards pre-teens, but there is a certain kind of pleasure in watching Nate talk (or sing) his way in or out of every situation he encounters. The film’s best moments allow Nate to perform, and Wood, who has appeared in Broadway tours, has the pipes and the talent. He is charming when he gets a call back and is asked to perform a monologue. Unprepared, he thinks fast on his feet and delivers a humdinger, which Nate sells, getting the Lilo and Stitch casting team enraptured in what is a mic drop moment. And there is certainly a knowing laugh to be had when Nate responds to a query about the source material, which is definitely not Edward Albee.

    Better Nate Than Ever also features a showstopping sequence—which, of course, goes viral—when Nate, in need of money, performs “On Broadway” with street musicians in Times Square. (The scene also features a fun cameo.) And Federle is certainly playing up the magic of New York in general and the theater world in particular by allowing little actual harm to come to the resilient Nate as he rebounds from one experience to the next. His confidence may ebb and flow over the weekend, but throughout it all, Nate remains likable, even when he sincerely flatters Heidi, calling her “his hero.”

    The film does live in the enchanted world of the theatre and moviedom, where Nate can realize his dream of escaping out a window and down a fire escape, as in West Side Story. Although some of the action is contrived (it is a kids’ film), older viewers can appreciate that Nate’s queerness is treated with the right amount of mocking and acceptance. He is teased by his older brother, Anthony (Joshua Bassett), about wearing lip gloss, and bullied by a classmate, yet his parents appreciate Nate’s outsized personality, allowing him to sleep over Libby’s house when they are away, without having to “worry.” Libby, however, does not quite realize that Nate’s friendship with her will be strictly platonic, which seems odd given how savvy and no-nonsense her character is. Nevertheless, Brooks is fantastic, stealing every scene she is in.

    Although the film can come off as aggressively wholesome and earnest at times, Better Nate Than Ever still offers valuable life lessons. As Heidi tells Nate to “find his light,” and Libby looks for what she wants, the teenage characters and their innocent wonder can be inspiring. Moreover, Anthony, a star athlete, gets a scene where he bemoans about having to be perfect and the pressure that entails, which allows Bassett a moment to shine.

    Federle may deliberately underuse the adult cast members. Lisa Kudrow’s Heidi, who is a great cheerleader for Nate, should have had a bit more spunk and screen time. Likewise, the two-time Tony winner Norbert Leo Butz could have been wonderful as the Lilo and Stitch casting agent. He does not get much to do here, which is a shame, but there is a cute joke about his character thinking the theatre is a four-letter word.

    Better Nate Than Ever wears its love for the Great White Way on its sleeve, from the Gwen Verdon poster that adorns Nate’s bedroom, to the teens singing along to Wicked. This film is as passionate about theater as its characters are. 

    © 2022 Gary M. Kramer

    Gary M. Kramer is the author of “Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews,” and the co-editor of “Directory of World Cinema: Argentina.” Follow him on Twitter @garymkramer

    Published on May 5, 2022