An entitlement fantasy that works better than it has any right to, Better Nate Than Ever concerns a middle-schooler who dreams of Broadway stardom.
In the tradition of “If you can dream it, you can be it,” Nate (Rueby Wood) and pal Libby (Aria Brooks) take a clandestine bus ride to New York where he weasels into an audition for the latest Disney-on-Broadway project. (I won’t spoil what it is although I’m sure others will. In the book, FYI, it was a musical version of E.T., and in a world where there have already been stage musical versions of The Truman Show and Back to the Future, I wouldn’t put it past today’s producers.)
Once in New York, the green kids from Pittsburgh have a series of adventures. Complications arise. Family issues surface. Friendship loyalty is tested. You know the drill. None of it makes much sense — especially the notion that an eighth-grader deserves to be upset when he keeps getting overlooked for lead roles. In a world where even high-school musical programs are being cut or cut back, it’s difficult to imagine a place where a middle-schooler would have had the chance to be turned down for leads multiple times. It’s as if writer-director Tim Fiderele (who also wrote the source novel) couldn’t decide how old he wanted his central character to be.
The audition process displayed here also is patently absurd, as is the time frame for production. But fantasies aren’t supposed to be bound too much by logic, right? This is, after all, a movie primarily aimed at kids who believe stardom is the goal rather than improving as an artist.
Still, there are pleasures here.
Like Turning Red, another recent Disney release, Better Nate Than Ever is unafraid to allow its protagonist to be annoying in addition to being awkward. There’s a low-key acknowledgment that not all boys are interested in girls, which feels progressive for a Disney kids flick. And its supporting cast helps elevate what could be throwaway moments.
Lisa Kudrow gives just enough gravitas to Nate’s estranged aunt, an actress who had her moment and now works as a cater waiter, to give the film some needed grounding. The great Broadway actor Norbert Leo Butz shines as the kid’s father, although I was hoping for a song from him. Broadway’s Priscilla Lopez (A Chorus Line) and Mandy Gonzalas (In the Heights) drop in for cameos. And what a pleasure seeing Brooks Ashmanskas as the casting director, hinting at what he could have brought to the film version of The Prom if that film’s creators hadn’t ditched him for James Corden.
On his own, Nate may not be great. But thanks in part to being in such good company, his film is a lot more fun than most of what’s out there in streaming land.