Nate Foster (Rueby Wood), the stage-struck seventh-grader at the center of “Better Nate Than Ever,” is “different,” according to his father (Norbert Leo Butz). How so? Classroom discussion of the heavily implied answer to that question has recently come under fire in Florida — and isn’t directly stated in this shiny, otherwise effusive Disney+ family comedy. But it is signified with various degrees of directness: A rainbow-striped rabbit’s foot dangles from Nate’s backpack, and at one point it is revealed that Nate, a member of Generation Z, somehow has memorized a monologue from a 1986 episode of “Designing Women,” originally delivered by Dixie Carter.
Nate has too much personality for the school play. Heck, he proves too much for the school-bus driver, whom he greets with a jaunty “Good day, guv’nor!” So when Nate’s parents leave his jock of an older brother, Anthony (Joshua Bassett), in charge for the weekend, Nate and his best friend, Libby (Aria Brooks), abscond on an overnight bus to Manhattan to see if he fits in — or better still, stands out — at an open audition for “Lilo and Stitch: The Musical,” an as-yet-unrealized idea that Disney seems to be gauging for Broadway interest.
Tim Federle, who wrote the children’s novel on which this movie is based and makes his feature directing debut here, paints Times Square in cotton-candy colors. As a filmmaker, he doesn’t yet have the comic timing to prod a laugh from a montage of rats and garbage. But his leads deliver hearty performances that elevate the movie, particularly once we’ve had time to adjust to the gusto of Wood, whose wired performance has the flavor of Hugh Jackman’s exuberance squeezed into an espresso cup. The slight story is buttressed by the L.G.B.T.Q. affirmations, even if the movie is indirect in delivering them. At least the script finds creative ways to do that — as when Aunt Heidi (Lisa Kudrow), herself a struggling actor, sighs, “Some boys aren’t comfortable admitting they know every word to ‘Pippin.’”
Better Nate Than Ever
Rated PG. Running time: 1 hour 31 minutes. Watch on Disney+.