[Screen It]


(2022) (Rueby Wood, Aria Brooks) (PG)

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Comedy: A boy and his best friend sneak off to New York so that he can audition for a new musical.

Nate Foster (RUEBY WOOD) is a 7th grader living in Pittsburg with his parents and older brother, Anthony (JOSHUA BASSETT), who's constantly embarrassed by him, especially his love of all things Broadway. His best friend is Libby (ARIA BROOKS) who helps him get through his repeated rejections of trying out for the lead role in school plays. But she lightens his mood and gets his dreams fired up when she informs him that there's going to be a Lilo & Stitch musical and auditions for that are occurring soon.

The only problem is they're in NYC and his parents will never let him go. But as they've already planned a weekend anniversary getaway, Nate and Libby plot to sneak off to the Big Apple, only to find that Nate will need the presence of a parent or guardian before he can audition for the musical. They then happen to run into Nate's aunt Heidi (LISA KUDROW) a Broadway alum who works as a catering employee when not auditioning for plays.

Despite but also due to long being estranged from her sister, she wants to get her nephew back home, but Nate is determined to make sure he gets a shot at living out his dream.

OUR TAKE: 6.5 out of 10

It's funny that despite nearly being a theater major in college (I ended up minoring in it, mainly tied to screenwriting I was doing in the playwriting classes), I never saw or participated in any form of the theater before then. That was especially true of middle and high school when back then -- the 1970s and '80s -- it wasn't remotely cool to be involved in such things (much like the golf team, although that coach wanted me on it). Nowadays, I imagine it is cool to be involved in theater (and golf) in middle and high school thanks to its popularity among the masses.

Even so, I imagine some kids still get ridiculed and maybe even bullied for loving the theater and especially all things Broadway-related. That's the gist behind "Better Nate Than Ever," writer/director Tim Federle's infectiously entertaining and engaging offering that's based on his award-winning 2013 novel of the same name. It's the tale of 13-year-old Nate Foster (played with plenty of winning gusto by Rueby Wood) who's quite possibly the biggest fan of musicals in his hometown of Pittsburg, much to the embarrassment of his older brother, Anthony (Joshua Bassett).

The only problem -- beyond dealing with the usual bully matter -- is that he can't land the lead part in any of his school's plays, an obvious issue since that's his life goal. His friend, Libby (Aria Brooks), tries to keep his spirits up, and then happens upon news that will certainly help. And that's an open casting call for the upcoming stage musical adaptation of "Lilo & Stitch" (which was "E.T: The Musical" in the novel, but I guess since this is a Disney production they wanted to keep everything in the Mouse House).

But that's occurring in Manhattan. Thankfully, his parents have planned a weekend anniversary getaway with Anthony tasked with babysitting. Realizing his sib will be less than excited to do so and resultingly not paying close attention, Nate and Libby set up schemes to make it look like they're still home when they're really on a bus headed for the Big Apple and Nate's obvious first step toward superstardom on the Great White Way.

Naturally, they run into another obstacle when they learn that no kid can audition without a parent or guardian present. Enter -- a little more than conveniently -- Nate's aunt, Heidi (Lisa Kudrow pretty much playing a slightly toned-down version of Phoebe from "Friends"), an occasional Broadway actress who makes ends meet working for a catering firm. Also naturally, she wants to get her nephew back home to her estranged sister (in a subplot that never really gains much traction), but as determined kids are apt to do, Nate finds a workaround to that and other issues and obstacles that arise.

There's no denying Federle's adoration for both musicals and kids who feel like outsiders due to something they love that others often ridicule. And I imagine some related parts are most likely fairly autobiographical for him. That shows in the way Nate is written (with Wood killing it in his first big-screen role), while some of the daydream/imagined numbers are handled quite well, giving the flick a light, sort of fantasy vibe (rather than any sort of realistic deep dive into early adolescence).

If you love Broadway or stories about kids pursuing their dreams, you'll likely find this warm, funny, and entertaining offering to your liking. I did, and thus "Better Nate Than Ever" rates as a 6.5 out of 10.

Reviewed March 1, 2022 / Posted April 1, 2022

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