‘BETTER Nate than Ever’ is a musical comedy written and directed by Tim Federle, the showrunner of the hit TV musical series, “High School Musical”. He wrote it first as a novel in 2013 and is about a 13-year old middle school boy in Pittsburgh who aspires to be a musical theatre actor, preferably in Broadway.
Nate (Rueby Wood) auditions in their school musical for tweens, but he is never given a lead role. He is also bullied but he finds a supporter in his best friend, Libby (Aria Brooks), a black girl who obviously loves him but it’s obvious that Nathan is gay, although this is not overemphasized in the film.
Libby informs Nate that open auditions are being held in Broadway for the live musical adaptation of the animated film, “Lilo & Stitch”. Nate gets so excited but he is not sure if his parents would agree for him to go to New York. But when he learns that his parents would be away for the weekend and his older brother (Joshua Bassett) would be with his own friends, he and Libby board a bus going to the Big Apple without informing anyone about their trip.
They get to the venue of the audition but Nate learns that they need a parent or a guardian to accompany him. It so happens that her Aunt Heidi (Lisa Kudrow), the estranged sister of his mother, was around to audition for another play and agrees to be his guardian.
This coming-of-age musical is a wish fulfillment vehicle for anyone who loves the theatre. Nate initially embarrasses himself in the initial audition and he thinks he didn’t qualify. They’re on their return trip to Pittsburgh when he gets a callback. He then goes to Times Square and sings with street performers.
His impromptu rendition of George Benson’s “On Broadway” is a big hit and people uploaded the footage on Tiktok, making him an instant celebrity. With his singing a hit on the internet, his parents and his brother are shocked when they see it and learn of his adventure in New York.
But since this is a feel good musical, you know that everything will end well. His mom and his Aunt Heidi even get to reconcile after not being on speaking terms for so long, also Nate with his older brother who earlier told him he’s embarrassing. Aunt Heidi also bags the lead role she has auditioned for.
This movie reminds us of the British musical we also reviewed here, “Everybody’s Talking About Jamie”. Both films are about young boys who are ridiculed in school for being different but are not fazed in pursuing their dreams. Newcomer Rueby Wood as Nate is an amazing pint-sized dynamo of energy, looking so wired in his acting and singing with so much brazzy efferverscence that is a bit over the top, just like the movie itself that strives hard to win and please us. But still, he remains charming and it’s easy to root for him.
Everything in the movie is idealized, even the people and the musicians who are all friendly and supportive to Nate. Those who auditioned Nate are mostly kind and accommodating. Lisa Kudrow as the aunt is a welcome presence, making use of her quirky delivery to give some punch to the lines that could have stumbled badly.
The film is mounted with an eye to Nate’s rose-colored, good-natured perception of the world, so the production and set designs are spot on in that aspect. The cinematography exploits them well in the musical numbers which are staged like old movie musicals about unlikely triumphs in the theatre. Rueby Wood sings a storm in his final audition number, “No One Gets Left Behind”, and the Broadway dream sequence, “Big Time”, is handsomely mounted.