As the theater industry grapples with the lingering tumult of COVID-19, a new Disney+ film is giving families a chance to enjoy the razzle dazzle of pre-pandemic Broadway from the comfort of their living room.
“Better Nate Than Ever” is a passion project for writer and director Tim Federle, who Disney+ viewers may recognize as the creator of “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series.” Adapted by Federle from his own 2013 novel, the musical comedy uses New York’s bustling streets and cutthroat audition rooms as settings for a whimsical ― and LGBTQ-affirming ― coming-of-age tale.
(Catch the trailer for “Better Nate Than Ever” above.)
“Certainly 10 years ago, I never imagined that this would be a love letter to an industry that’s struggling,” Federle, now based in Los Angeles, told HuffPost. “I also wasn’t sure if a family film with a gay protagonist would get made, honestly. I was told as much by a number of studios who said, ‘Love the book, really fun, super relatable. Have you thought about making the lead character a girl, or maybe not queer?’ And that was such a no-no, because for me, a central aspect of growing up was the realization of my future as a gay person, which was so tied into my identity as a young theater kid.”
“Better Nate Than Ever,” which debuted on Disney+ earlier this month, follows Nate Foster (played by Rueby Wood), a precocious seventh grader whose big dreams and thespian talents make him out of place in his suburban Pennsylvania hometown.
After being passed over for the lead in the school play, Nate and his best friend, Libby (Aria Brooks), learn about an open casting call for the Broadway adaptation of “Lilo & Stitch.” To attend the New York audition, the tween pals must hatch a plan to avoid getting caught by Nate’s jock of an older brother, Anthony (Joshua Bassett), while their parents are away on a weekend trip.
Fortunately, Nate finds a kindred spirit in his estranged Aunt Heidi (Lisa Kudrow), a struggling actor herself. What follows is a madcap adventure that winks at 1980s comedies like “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” and “Adventures in Babysitting.” It may also mark the first time one of Dixie Carter’s “Designing Women” speeches has been used as an audition monologue.
“Better Nate Than Ever” was the first in a trilogy of books loosely based on Federle’s professional experiences as a Broadway dancer and associate choreographer. For the role of Nate, he and the creative team sought a young actor who would capture the “effervescence and innocence” of the character. Wood, an Oswego, New York, native with no prior TV or film experience, won the part after seven callbacks. Broadway veterans like Brooks Ashmanskas, Norbert Leo Butz and Priscilla Lopez turn up in supporting roles and root the film in theatrical authenticity.
According to Federle, “Better Nate Than Ever” aims to portray a young LGBTQ person “at the beginning of discovery, rather than the beginning of declaration” and, as such, references to Nate’s sexuality are mostly indirect. (The character confidently identifies as gay in 2018’s “Nate Expectations,” the third book in the series.)
Still, as several outlets have pointed out, the movie arrives as Disney is facing a wave of backlash for its checkered response to Florida’s Parental Rights in Education ― or “Don’t Say Gay” ― law. The Daily Beast picked up on the film’s seemingly auspicious timing, praising “Nate” as “the most gay-positive and encouraging youth programming that Disney has ever released,” before noting: “And it is coming out at the most bizarre time.”
Pointing to the diverse characters and storylines on “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series,” Federle insists Disney has “always supported me, and the type of stuff I want to make,” and believes the entertainment corporation is committed to doing better.
“In its best incarnation, Disney is the company of hope, optimism, love, family, joy and escape,” he said. “Representation doesn’t cancel out bad legislation, but two things can be true at once. And I think representation does matter.”
“Better Nate Than Ever” is now streaming on Disney+.