The Disney Company can be forgiven for donating to a few right-wing politicians in order to continue operating in Florida. As if in penance, they’ve produced “Better Nate than Ever,” now streaming on Disney+.
This is the movie I wish I could have seen when, like titular character Nate Foster, I was a 13-year-old theater queen, clueless about who I was and why I felt different.
Of course there’s more information out there now. Youngsters can go to the internet or, in most states, teachers and counselors at school, to learn why they feel an attraction to members of their own gender.
But there are still confused kids out there, and in some cases the pressures on them are even greater than they were in my youth; so all generations of queers can celebrate “Better Nate than Ever” on some level.
Some will identify more than others. When Nate plays a tree in a middle school musical, it reminded me of my own school performances that were described as “wooden.” Writer-director Tim Federle, creator of “High School Musical: The Series,” says this movie, based on his book, is semi-autobiographical.
Nate’s best friend Libby tells him about an audition for a Broadway musical version of “Lilo & Stitch,” and suggests they go to New York so he can audition. They take a bus from Pittsburgh and—what are the odds?—run into Nate’s estranged Aunt Heidi (Lisa Kudrow), a cater waiter and aspiring actress, at the audition site.
This is a fantasy, remember. No one over 13 could believe a minute of it, so let your inner 13-year-old watch it with you. Mine was in a puddle of laughter and tears by the time Nate and Libby said goodbye at the end.
It’s one of many lines that suggest Nate’s sexuality without endangering the film’s PG rating. My favorite is Aunt Heidi’s reference to boys “who know every lyric to ‘Pippin,’” which has a big payoff at the end. They don’t say “gay,” so “Better Nate than Ever” can be shown in Florida schools; but you have to be as stupid as a homophobic politician to miss the point. Even his father says, “Nate’s different.”
For added diversity, there’s a brief scene of a gay couple pushing a baby carriage in Times Square and communicating in ASL.
Rueby Wood is believably awkward as Nate, but able to deliver in the scenes that show he has what it takes to achieve his dream. Aria Brooks convinces us of what Libby is to Nate, what she dreams of being and what she will become.
There are enough songs to justify the line, “Musicals allow us to say things we can’t actually say in real life.” Movie ratings and now state laws don’t always let us say those things aloud, but “Better Nate than Ever” speaks directly to the heart about a world where boys can be “different” without being “less than.”