Being promoted as Disney’s first original movie with a queer male lead, Better Nate Than Ever offers an enjoyable musical comedy even though it has certain issues.
Based on the book of the same name by Tim Federle, Better Nate Than Ever is about 13-year-old Nate (Rueby Wood), who is all about making it big on Broadway. However, the problem is that he lives in Pittsburgh and his parents don’t have a lot of money to help make his dreams come true. Of course, Nate also has to deal with the bullying at school. He’s even unable to win the lead or even the role of a supporting character in his school’s play about Abraham Lincoln.
I’m not sure, but I think it’s implied that Nate didn’t win the lead or any other significant role because he’s a bit too effeminate. Anyway, having faced defeat during the final casting announcement of the school’s play, Nate gets some good news from his best friend Libby (Aria Brooks). Open auditions are being held for the Lilo and Stitch Musical and Nate’s got to take the chance!
Conveniently, Nate’s parents decide to go on a trip and his older brother Anthony (Joshua Bassett) has a game (I think it’s supposed to be football). So, Nate and Libby plan to run away to New York to audition. What follows is Nate getting to experience obstacle after obstacle as a kid trying to realize his dreams in the big city with help from his Aunt Heidi (Lisa Kudrow).
Written by directed by Tim Federle, one of the things I liked how Better Nate Than Ever is that it’s a feel-good movie. Nate doesn’t get everything he wants, but the movie still concludes on a high note. I think the film did a good job of showing Nate to be a graceful loser. He’s someone who learns how to see the positive in certain events as long as they took him closer to his goal, even if just an inch. I think the situation Nate found himself in at the end of the movie helped show the competitiveness of the Broadway world. You need to look at the bigger picture if you want to be part of the entertainment industry. Becoming the lead on your first gig rarely happens.
As far as the queer representation is concerned, the narrative didn’t shy away from making it clear that Nate’s a queer kid. There’s even a little subplot dealing with Libby’s crush on Nate. That particular story thread could have been a mess, but the movie did a good job of handling Libby’s feelings for Nate. She understood that Nate “wasn’t like that”, and that her crush on someone like Nate shouldn’t harm the two being best friends. They still loved each other, even if it wasn’t in a romantic sense.
Nate’s parents were also accepting of his sexuality. I liked how casual Nate’s father (Norbert Leo Butz) was when he told Anthony that unlike him, Nate could stay the night at a girl’s house. Nate’s parents were also into his love of singing and performing, they just didn’t have the funds to help put him on the kind of platform his talents deserved.
The film also had a scene showcasing Anthony being supportive of Nate and letting him know that he wasn’t embarrassed by him. I never thought Anthony actually hated or disliked his queer little brother. The two just had different interests. But due to Nate being a kid, I think he needed to hear Anthony be clear about his love for him.
Better Nate Than Ever also had a scene where Nate asked a queer couple (one of the men being deaf), with a baby stroller, for directions to the museum. It was a short scene, but I think it still had an impact considering said scene was part of a Disney movie.
So, yeah, for a film being promoted as Disney’s first queer-led story, I have to say there was a lot of queer representation during the approximately 90-minute runtime. However, having said that, for this review to be fair, I have to mention some of the gripes I had.
The fact that Disney’s first queer-led film ended up being about an effeminate little boy who liked Broadway musicals felt like an easy bar to jump. Even the queer representation in Disney’s High School Musical: The Musical – The Series features two queer kids being into musicals.
I’m still waiting for a Disney live-action movie that has young queer kids who have interests other than breaking into show tunes to express their feelings. Contrary to what’s shown in Hollywood, not every LGBTQ+ person is into Broadway musicals when they are growing up.
Another grip was the reveal that Nate’s bully was also into singing songs in secret. The queer protagonist’s bully being a closeted queer person is a problematic trope I want Hollywood to let go of. At least there wasn’t any romantic tension between Nate and his bully. So, at least, points for that. I guess?
Now, my biggest issue with Better Nate Than Ever deals with how Disney freaking managed to make an entire queer-led movie without the words “gay”, “queer” or “LGBTQ+” being said once. Like, that’s got to be some kind of record. Right?
I take it having fictional characters actually say those words out loud was a bit too much for a family-oriented movie? It’s giving Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill tease. Sigh!
All in all, I found Better Nate Than Ever to be a fun movie, even though it had some issues. I laughed at a whole lot of jokes and I wish Libby and Nate all the success in their future endeavors. I wouldn’t mind having the two return for a sequel exploring Nate’s experience while working on Broadway and Libby trying to succeed as an agent.
Both child stars did an impressive job. A character like Nate could have come across as annoying, but Wood made sure to have his portrayal be comedic and welcoming. You will find yourself rooting for Nate.
Better Nate Than Ever was released on Disney Plus on April 1, 2022.
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Farid has a Double Masters in Psychology and Biotechnology as well as an M.Phil in Molecular Genetics. He is the author of numerous books including Missing in Somerville, and The Game Master of Somerville. He gives us insight into comics, books, TV shows, anime/manga, video games, and movies.
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