Amid the rather dull slate of Disney Plus original movies, Better Nate Than Ever finally brings some much-needed pizazz. Maybe it’s no surprise that a movie about the consummate theater kid is full of sparkling showmanship. And perhaps it’s no surprise that the movie was written and directed by High School Musical: The Musical: The Series showrunner Tim Federle, who already proved his theater-kid sensibilities with that Disney Plus series. But Better Nate Than Ever — based on Federle’s debut novel — shines from beginning to end, with a stellar central character and just the right amount of whimsy and reality.
[Ed. note: This review contains slight setup spoilers for Better Nate Than Ever.]
Nate Foster (newcomer Rueby Wood) is a passionate theater kid who just can’t catch his big break in any of the stage productions at his middle school. With his parents away for the weekend, Nate and his best friend Libby (Aria Brooks) decide to take a chance and run away to New York to audition for a Broadway version of Lilo and Stitch. Making it in the big city isn’t as glamorous or as easy as the musicals paint it to be, but Nate is determined to see his dream through, in spite of the mounting odds against him. In New York, he reunites with his estranged Aunt Heidi (Lisa Kudrow), who’s been trying to make it as an actress for years. Meanwhile, Nate also tries to keep his high-schooler brother Anthony (Joshua Bassett) from finding out he even left town at all.
Let’s get one thing out of the way: Better Nate Than Ever isn’t an unabashedly goofy and indulgent Disney Channel Original Movie. It has more budget and polish than the likes of High School Musical, Camp Rock, and Lemonade Mouth. But unlike other Disney Plus Originals, Better Nate Than Ever keeps that same earnest charm that the best DCOMs share. Too often, Disney Plus Originals have held back from embracing the special charm of an unapologetic all-ages escapade, and have tried to appeal to adults instead. But Better Nate Than Ever hits all the sweet spots, balancing the heart and the humor in a delightful feel-good mix.
The driving force of the movie is Nate, a school misfit who’s unabashedly true to himself. He has big dreams and he wants to make them happen so badly, even when he has little support from his peers and his family. He can’t land the lead in his school productions because the drama teacher gives those roles to more “experienced” students (or as experienced as middle-school students can be). Nate finds that frustrating because how is he supposed to get experience when no one will take a chance on him? It’s not a lack of talent, but the lack of opportunity, and that just makes Nate all the more relatable.
As Nate, Wood captures the specific overly exuberant energy of a blossoming theater kid: a passionate love for theater, confidence brimming out of him like golden sunshine, and dreams far bigger than his Pittsburg suburb — not to mention a personality that’s a twinge annoying, but in a way that feels realistic for a 13-year-old. He’s awkward, and he tries too hard, but he’s endearing as hell. Wherever Nate goes, he just magnetically pulls people in. Nate is the movie’s shining star, though it also brings forward a strong ensemble to bolster him along.
The three central supporting characters — Anthony, Libby, and Heidi — also feel authentic. They’re mostly tools to push Nate’s story along, but we also see glimpses of their own struggles, which flesh them out from supporting stock characters. Not all of them have their problems solved within the movie’s runtime, but they all grow a little through the course of the movie, and they all learn something from Nate. The way Nate looks up to Heidi, and the way she uses that as motivation to reconnect with her family, is a particularly memorable subplot that’s heartwarming but not too cloying. Still, the focus is primarily on Nate himself, and that’s for the better. Other Disney Plus originals have tried to give older characters meaty plots to rival the protagonists, at the expense of remembering who the movie really is meant for. But not so in the case of Better Nate Than Ever. The supporting characters — particularly the adults — aren’t one-dimensional, but the story is still primarily about Nate and his weekend whirlwind adventure.
Certain elements of Better Nate Than Ever are larger than life, but those are features, not bugs. Yes, it’s unrealistic for two middle-schoolers to jump into town for a weekend and sneak into a Broadway audition. Yes, it’s even more unrealistic for Nate to plod around New York City without a place to stay, then rocket to viral fame after singing on the street. Yes, the musical sequences in his head are over-the-top (though in keeping with the movie’s love of theater, they always use practical stage effects and costuming). But that’s part of the fantasy, what makes these sorts of movies so appealing to kids — and to the adults who may have been this kind of kid once upon a time. Nate does face some more grounded struggles, like being teased by his peers, or navigating his tense relationship with his jock brother. But when it comes to the bigger struggles, it’s more satisfying to see Nate soar over the roadblocks, once he finally finds the momentum.
Better Nate Than Ever is a delight. It’s an ode to theater kids (and wannabe theater kids) everywhere. It doesn’t pander to that audience, but there’s enough grounding the movie to make it appeal to an adult audience. A story about a misfit kid trying to find his way in the world is pretty universal, no matter the viewer’s age, and Better Nate Than Ever tells that story incredibly well through its charmingly awkward lead. Come for the celebration of theater-kid energy (and the deluge of fun Broadway references) and stay for Nate’s spectacular adventure.
Better Nate Than Ever debuts on Disney Plus on April 1.