“Better Nate Than Ever”, which was released on Disney+ in last week, is a plain but likable musical film packed with enough heart and spunk. As a story about one very enthusiastic theater kid dreaming of becoming the next star of Broadway, the movie is pretty predictable to the core, but it constantly delights and amuses us as bouncing from one expected moment to another, and we find ourselves rooting for its little young hero more than expected.
At the beginning, we see how life has been rather frustrating for Nate Foster (Rueby Wood) in his suburban neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Although he has aspired to have a successful theater career in the Broadway area of New York City someday, his parents and his older brother Anthony (Joshua Bassett) do not understand his aspiration that much, and he is also often ridiculed at his school just for being, well, quite theatrical.
Anyway, Nate has diligently participated in the school drama club along with his best female friend Libby Reneé (Aira Brooks), and he is ardently hoping that he will be cast as the leading performer of the upcoming musical performance (It is a new rock musical based on Abraham Lincoln’s biography – Blame that certain acclaimed hip-hop musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda if you want). Alas, he only comes to learn that neither he nor Libby gets included in the main cast, and it is quite certain that they will just play minor roles as before.
While Nate naturally becomes daunted a lot by this bad news, Libby suggests that they should go together to New York City for participating in the upcoming audition for the Broadway musical production based on “Lilo & Stitch” (2002), one of a few contemporary Disney animation feature films which I have not somehow watched yet (I will rectify this error someday, I promise you). Nate is reluctant at first, but he soon finds himself quite motivated by the possibility of getting a big breakthrough in Broadway, and he and Libby subsequently embark on planning how to go to New York City without being noticed by their respective parents.
Fortunately, they do not have to lie that much for making their little scheme work. It seems that all they will have to do is taking a midnight bus to New York City and then returning to their neighborhood right after the audition, and, by coincidence, Nate’s parents will take a little vacation together outside Pittsburgh during that short period. They are going to leave their two sons alone in their house for a while, but they are not so concerned because Nate is supposed to be taken care of by Anthony, though taking care of Nate is the last thing to be considered for Anthony for good reasons.
It is not much of a spoiler to tell you that Nate and Libby eventually succeed in arriving in Broadway. Mainly thanks to their accidental encounter with Nate’s struggling actress aunt played by Lisa Kudrow, Nate manages to pass the first stage of the audition, but he and Libby belatedly come to learn that the audition will take more than just one day. While naturally feeling conflicted, he eventually decides to follow what his heart has always wanted, and that certainly makes the circumstance much more complicated than expected.
Around that narrative point, you will get a pretty good idea on how the story will arrive at its expected ending, but the screenplay by director/writer Tim Federle, which is based on his book of the same name, still holds our attention as deftly juggling its genre clichés and conventions. Yes, we surely get several your average musical scenes as our young plucky hero dreams more or more along the story, but these musical moments are peppered well with wit and energy, and I assure you that you cannot help but smile as watching Nate giving an impromptu musical performance in the middle of New York City. Sure, the main characters are more or less than your typical broad archetypes, but they are depicted with loving care and attention at least, and that is particularly evident from Nate’s parents, who still find themselves concerned about their sons even when they are supposed to enjoy their own private time together.
The breezy charm of the movie owes a lot to young newcomer Rueby Wood, who ably carries the film with his own presence and personality. While you may find his character a bit overeager at first, you will be soon disarmed by Wood’s unadorned spirit coupled with considerable singing talent (I can easily imagine him playing Billy Elliot someday), and then you will appreciate more of how his character’s energy and determination will inspire and encourage many theater kids out there. Sure, not all of them will be next Broadway stars, but, after all, there is not anything wrong about following your passion and dream, isn’t it?
The supporting cast members fill their respective spots around Wood as required. While Lisa Kudrow is the most colorful one in the bunch (Raise your hand if you cannot help but feel a bit nostalgic like me due to her certain classic American TV sitcom series), Aria Brooks and Joshua Bassett have each own moment to shine, and Norbert Leo Butz, who is incidentally a two-time Tony winner, and Michelle Federer provide some gravitas to the story as Nate’s parents.
On the whole, “Better Nate Than Ever” is as thin and fluffy as cotton candy, but it is a well-made product equipped with enough charm and competence at least. I am a rather down-to-earth dude who does not have much illusion about life and reality, but I do not mind enjoying such sweet lightweight stuffs like this film as long as they are entertaining, and I am willing to recommend it to my friends – especially if they have kids to be entertained.