Thank heavens for theater kids. If not for the enigmatic yet insatiable flame in the youngsters born adoring plays and musicals, who would recount our stories? They are the people who make us laugh, cry, stand up and cheer, and dance in the aisles; they are the people who create “My Fair Lady,” “Hamilton,” “Mamma Mia,” “Les Misérables,” and “The Sound of Music.” These children and teenagers will grow up to create “My Fair Lady,” “Hamilton,” “Mamma Mia,” and “The Sound of Music.”
Unfortunately, middle school may be a challenging period for students who are involved in the theater. Another unpleasant fact is that those middle schools are typically located quite some distance away from Broadway. This is the situation with the main character of the play “Better Nate Than Ever,” a seventh-grader from Pittsburgh who is familiar with all of the lyrics to the song “Corner of the Sky” from the musical Pippin, which was performed in the 1970s. He is also aware that the Tony Award for Best Musical should have gone to Wicked instead of Avenue Q in 2004, and that he is destined in some way or another to be on stage at some point in his life. The writer and director of “Better Nate Than Ever,” Tom Federle, is a former Broadway dancer who also penned the book that this film is based on and is the showrunner for “High School Musical: The Musical.” Each and every scene in “Better Nate Than Ever” reflects Federle’s own profound love for musicals and for the people who create them.
Nate (played by newcomer Rueby Wood), who is eager and anxious to find out if he has been cast as the lead role in the middle school musical about Abraham Lincoln, wakes up to George Benson’s “On Broadway” and dances in his bunny slippers. That does not come true, but it does pave the way for an even more ambitious desire, which leads to a trip that is thrilling, musical, and heartwarming.
Libby is, to all appearances, Nate’s one and only close friend (Aria Brooks, who has perfected the snap of the Eve Arden-style best-friend delivery). She gives him the news that there are open auditions in New York for a new musical that is based on “Lilo and Stitch,” an animated Disney film about a Hawaiian girl who befriends a space monster. She does this as a means of consoling him after he is passed over for a role in the school play. Nate and Libby take advantage of the fact that both of Nate’s parents and brother will be out of town for the weekend and travel to New York City on an overnight bus. When they find out that they are unable to audition without a parent or guardian present, they coincidentally stumble across Nate’s Aunt Heidi, who is also an actress but makes her living as a caterer. Lisa Kudrow is very delightful in this role. Nate receives helpful direction from her during the audition process, and she even offers him a place to stay if he gets a callback.
Broadway actors Michelle Federer and Norbert Leo Butz, who are also in real life married to each other, assume the roles of Nate’s parents in the show. Wood, who played the title role in the musical “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” adds to the luster of Broadway. One of the film’s highlights occurs when he needs some money to buy a phone charger, and he ends up singing with some buskers in Times Square. His song of choice is, of course, “On Broadway,” and Wood performs it with such jubilant and self-assured joy that George Benson himself gives him a fist bump during the performance.
At a time when school boards, politicians, and even Disney itself find itself in the center of disagreements about the best approach to educate children about gender and sexual orientation, it’s especially nice to see the subjects portrayed with clarity and grace here. Nate explains to Libby in a kind and caring manner that although they will always love each other, they will never have a romantic connection. She understands. That sums it up nicely.
There are several extravagant dream-like numbers in addition to the diegetic songs that are performed in the auditions, and all of them are brilliantly staged. This is similar to any great movie musical. Joshua Bassett, a popular actor among adolescents, lends a likable quality to the role of an anxious elder brother who must be given more time to understand Nate. Federle has experience working backstage, and she has witnessed some telling incidents involving other theater kids who are auditioning in the hopes of getting cast. The diversion to the Natural History Museum, on the other hand, does not work as well, and the handling of the alienation between Nate’s mother and her sister Heidi is not as deft as it could have been.
There are two compelling arguments in favor of viewing “Better Nate Than Ever.” To begin, it is an intelligent, amusing, and humorous film that is an excellent choice for viewing with one’s family. Second, if you decide to become a fan of Rueby Wood right now, you will ensure that you will not miss a single performance from a performer who has already proven themselves to be an expert in the fields of comedy, drama, singing, and dancing. You will want to be able to claim, “I watched him in his first movie,” in the event that he goes on to win a Tony Award someday.
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