Movie Review: “Better Nate than Ever” Musically Moves from the Page to the Screen

It’s been jarring to see the Walt Disney Company’s tepid, tone-deaf under-reaction to Florida’s “Don’t say ‘gay’ bill in light of everything that America’s greatest entertainment entertainment company has done that sends just the opposite message.

Many have been shocked at that in light of the corporate culture that seemed inspired by gay lyricist and eventual AIDS victim Howard Ashman’s reinvention of the screen musical, in animated form (“The Little Mermaid” and “Beauty and the Beast), which led to a more openly gay-friendly company. Disney, after all, not only tolerated but embraced the gay community’s creating “Gay Days” at Disney World.

And with all that, Disney has been reluctant to take a stand against hate-mongering legislation not designed to “protect kids/spare parents,” but to single out a minority group for increasingly authoritarian Republicans to attack and “erase.”

Disney has bought influence in the Florida legislature for decades, giving them free rein to develop Disney World, Celebration and everything about that happened “on property” from the start. Now, those same “Let Disney and its Reedy Creek Improvement District do whatever they want” legislators and their reactionary governor have passed a flagrant assault on free speech, gay rights and academic freedoms, one which carries “gay isn’t OK” messaging that many parents and students feel is dangerous and downright threatening.

What a time for “Better Nate Than Ever” to come to Disney+. But here it is, Tim Federle’s screen musical adaptation of his best-selling book about a 13 year-old Broadway baby and his “matter of life and death” dreams of singing and dancing on The Great White Way.

Our hero, Nate (Rueby Wood) has a classmate/confidante (Aria Brooks) who crushes on him — hard. But Nate, who is “just trying to survive the seventh grade,” struggles to find the words to let her down easily.

We know what he knows, and that “gotta dance” gotta sing call-to-the-stage, which comes with a fondness for glitter lip gloss, may “embarrass” his jock brother (Joshua Bassett). But Nate’s got a dream, got a purpose and has a tribe, and “theater kids” can isn’t just a euphemism for kids like him.

Because nobody in this movie says “gay” either. So maybe this corporate temerity is a bit more prevalent in the culture than we figured.

The film itself is an innocuous but pleasant “Junior High School Musical” from the writer/creator of that Disney blockbuster — Federle — with Gabriel Mann (“A Million Little Things”) serving up pleasantly forgettable songs.

Nate is short and earnest and tries his best, but he never gets cast in school plays. Yes, he’s only 13, but like gymnasts, ballerinas and mayflies, Broadway babies figure their window for “making it” closes a little bit every day.

Then he hears of a chance to jump past the drama teacher (Underdeveloped and underexplained –WHY won’t she cast him?) and straight onto Broadway. What is Disney’s next big movie-to-musical Broadway project? Only “the greatest animated film ever,” “Lilo & Stitch.”

Nate has the pluck to scheme his way, behind his struggling, working-class parents’ and his “babysitting” older brother’s’ back,s to get to New York. Can he pull that off, avoid getting mugged or just New York cheated out of his ready cash, ace the audition and realize his dream? Just guess.

The cute stuff Federle crams into this story include under-age fish-out-of-water gags about the kids — BFF Lily has to pitch in — bussing their way to New York, which Nate has “Guys and Dolls” era delusions about, “Billy Elliot” references, busking for bucks to survive the city, insufferable stage parents and their Broadway brats at auditions, and the movie’s ace in the hole.

That would be Lisa Kudrow as Nate’s semi-estranged aunt, a Broadway actress still acting and hoofing and hustling for a living decades after her “matter of life and death” dream came true. Sort of. Kudrow’s off-tempo way with a one-liner, her deadpan double-takes at this kid about to storm Broadway, who can use more than just her advice right now, kicks the comedy up a notch.

Nate’s irrepressible “THIS is where I’m supposed to be” renews Aunt Heidi’s enthusiasm for the cattle calls, the smell of the greasepaint and the roar of the crowd. She lives a vicariously — just a little — through Nate’s sudden stroke of luck (a “callback”).

The premise is so adorable as to give you a toothache. The production numbers have a “Guys and Dolls” era artifice that’s just as cute. And the dialogue has its share of zingers.

“Where in the name of Stephen Joshua Sondheim ARE you?”

Our lead, a veteran of the stage tour of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” has enough charm and musical theater chops to hold our interest even if the movie is aimed at more of a tween or young teen audience.

But even though you’d expect a movie looking for that demographic to not have much in the way of edge, you have to wonder if Federle lost an argument with corporate about mentioning the word “gay.” Is he kicking himself for not pushing back harder on that as “Nate” makes its way to TVs all over America, including the Banana Republic of Florida? I’ll bet he is.

Rating: PG for thematic elements, a suggestive reference and mild language

Cast: Rueby Wood, Aria Brooks, Joshua Bassett and Lisa Kudrow

Credits: Scripted and directed by Tim Federle, based on his novel. A Disney+ release.

Running time: 1:31

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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