Synopsis: 13-year-old Nate Foster has big Broadway dreams. There’s only one problem — he can’t even land a part in the school play. But when his parents leave town, Nate and his best friend Libby sneak off to the Big Apple for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to prove everyone wrong.
Stars: Rueby Wood, Aria Brooks, Joshua Bassett, Michelle Federer, Norbert Leo Butz, Lisa Kudrow
Director: Tim Federle
Running Length: 92 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: When I watch movies now, I tend to compare them to movies I saw when I was of a certain age. With the nostalgia trend in full kick, audiences approaching their mid-forties are fond of finding their new The Goonies or Gremlins or Fast Times at Ridgemont High… to name a few. Of course, nothing is going to be or beat those films because they were of their time and so perfect for that point in the history of when they were made. Then there are the movies I see that I wish had been made when I was a kid. Plenty of titles I see now would have been so great to see when I was younger and the Disney+ offering Better Nate Than Ever is an excellent example of that.
Yep, I’m one of those theater kids (maybe now I should call myself a former, or reformed, theater kid?) who had big Broadway dreams when I was in high school and probably for some time before that. While I now know there were oodles of old MGM/Warner Bros. movies about guys and gals that fled to NYC with the lights of the Great White Way dancing through their brains, back then, I didn’t know from what was in the small section of the video store I frequented. Had Better Nate Than Ever, with its plot of a teen that ditches school and heads to NYC for a Broadway audition, been available to me, I indeed would have found it, loved it, and probably been a stowaway on a Greyhound to NYC along with my best friend too.
Based on former Broadway dancer Tim Federle’s bestselling novel, Better Nate Than Ever is cute family entertainment that reaches the rafters with heart and ambition, even if it doesn’t always land its double turns. Directed by Federle, who also adapts his novel, the movie centers around Nate Foster (newcomer Rueby Wood), a 13-year-old Pittsburgh teenager who lives for the stage even if he can’t get a lead role in the school play. His best friend Libby (Aria Brooks, Harriet) is often by his side but doesn’t have quite the passion for acting; she just wants to be where Nate is, unlike Nate’s brother Anthony (Joshua Bassett) who it appears wants nothing to do with him. When Nate’s parents go on an unplanned weekend trip and then leave their boys alone to care for themselves, Libby convinces Nate to quickly bus it to NYC to audition for a Broadway musical which they both think could be his big break.
Of course, hijinks ensue as the two teenagers run into several obstacles as they travel as unaccompanied minors across state lines and into The Big Apple, where the promise of stardom awaits Nate. Never mind he hasn’t auditioned at this level before and is unprepared for the process, stage parents, competitive auditioners, or unexpected wardrobe malfunctions mid-audition. Also, though Nate knows his Aunt Heidi (Lisa Kudrow, Like a Boss) has lived in NYC as an actress for some time, the bad blood between her and his mom convinces him not to ring her up just in case she mends fences and turns him in. Who do you think is the first person he runs into before his audition?
The overall air of fantasy permeates the entire short run time of Better Nate Than Ever, down to a few well-staged but quite stage-bound musical numbers that don’t do much to add anything but padding. If the entire movie was a musical, I could see these interludes adding something, but they are so sporadic as to feel like afterthoughts. I’d almost have rather seen this done as a full-on musical to demonstrate Nate’s talents further. As it is, Wood is a charming performer possessing a pleasant voice but operates on a somewhat limited range in that regard — you can feel their voice is almost ready to break/change.
The film is saved by a commitment to telling a story for all the Nates who could be watching it, seeing their opportunity to shine and pursue their dreams, either locally or on a larger scale. There’s a strong message that success doesn’t have to be big to be important or worthy and to celebrate every win. That reinforcement is critical to share with everyone, especially developing minds, as they figure out what makes them happy and fills their cup. I know I would have taken a lot away from this if a VHS copy of the movie found its way to my player back in the day. For that, I give Better Nate Than Ever a solid standing ovation.