Nate dreams the impossible dream: to reach the unreachable star. And where is that star? On Broadway, of course, 42nd Street in New York, New York. If he can make it there, he can make it anywhere.
Because, let’s face it: Seventh grade for the guy is just a big ol’ bust.
Oh, Nate’s done his best to crack into his school’s drama program. He believes anything the school’s other singer-dancer-actors can do, he can do better. But even though he’s got rhythm, he’s got music, he can’t get his part. He’s as popular as Elphaba, as beloved as Officer Krupke.
It’s not fair. After all, Nate knows all the lyrics to the 1972 musical Pippin. He has a picture of (Broadway star) Bernadette Peters hanging up in his bedroom. If he were a rich man, maybe things would be different. But he’s not: He’s just a scrawny adolescent with ambitions as big as the South Pacific, as sweeping as the plains of Oklahoma, as powerful as Ol’ Man River.
But then his one real friend, Libby, tells him that perhaps he can skip the middle-school entertainment grind and jump straight to the Great White Way. A musical based on Lilo and Stitch is being produced for Broadway, and they’re holding open tryouts. That’s right: Open. Tryouts.
Perfect, right? Why, once Nate shows those showrunners his fascinating rhythm, everything would come up roses, wouldn’t it? All he needs is … well, to find a way to get from Pittsburgh to Manhattan without his parents finding out. Fat chance of that.
“I should give up on my dreams now!” he sighs. Alas, just 13, and he’s dreamed a dream that cannot be. Not until he learns how to drive, at least.
But then, something magical happens: His parents decide to take a honeymoon trip to West Virginia. Normally Anthony, Nate’s high-school-age brother, would watch him, but he’s got an important away game. (Probably a basketball game, but Nate’s never known much about sports.)
So, since everyone has plans they’d rather not break, Nate volunteers to spend the night at Libby’s house.
“You’d never let me stay overnight at a girl’s house!” Anthony protests.
“You’re not Nate,” their father says. “Nate’s … different.”
And so the stage is set. Once Nate and Libby are on their own, they’ll hop on a bus to the Big Apple and find their way to Broadway.
Sure, Nate will have to deal with a staggering number of competitors. He’ll need to sweet talk the producers, too, since they normally require kids have, y’know, parents or guardians present. Oh, and if they like him? Give him a part? Seems like an extended Broadway run might be a hard thing to keep from Mom and Dad for too long.
But don’t bother Nate with such details. First things first: He’s gotta sing, gotta dance.
And he’s not throwing away his shot.
[Note: Spoilers are contained in the following sections.]
I guess we can all be grateful that Nate and Libby survive their excursion to the Big Apple without being robbed or kidnapped or forced to sleep on the streets. And they can thank Heidi, Nate’s long-lost aunt, for at least the not sleeping on the streets part. In an act of splendid serendipity, Nate and Libby run into her in the teeming city. And after buying lunch for the two runaways, she tries to be a responsible adult and give Nate’s mom (Heidi’s estranged sister) a call. Libby and Nate foil those plans, but that’s not Heidi’s fault. And when Nate needs a place to stay for a night, the kid tracks down Heidi again.
Nate’s excursion also eventually leads to reconciliation between the two sisters. So that’s good, too.
But Nate has plenty of folks looking out for his well-being. Libby is looking out for Nate in every way she can. (“My love language is quality time,” she tells him.) Big brother Anthony loves Nate, too—even though the two are wildly different.
And when Nate returns to the relatively calm confines of Pittsburgh, he tries to return the favor—saying the trip to New York was all his fault, and that everyone else involved was relatively blameless. (And in a movie as irresponsible as we’ll see this one is, it’s nice to see a hint, at least, of responsible behavior.)
Nate has faith in just two things: His own talent and his lucky rabbit’s foot. He’s not particular about what his rabbit foot looks like: When he loses one, he promptly buys another—a foot painted in telltale rainbow colors. Both seem equally effective, and Nate credits much of the movie’s crazy luck to these severed bits of lupus.
Other than that, Better Nate Than Ever offers a tiny grab bag of spiritual phrases and feints, none of which seem to be taken too seriously by anyone.
When a cashier refuses to give Nate a discount on a phone charger, Nate huffs, “I’m not the praying kind, but I’ll be praying for you, ma’am!” He tells Libby that he hopes that “karma hits [a bully] in the form of a bus.” (A metaphorical bus, he adds, because he’s against violence of all kinds.) Characters attend a posh bar mitzvah. We see a few Buddha-like sculptures; when we first see Libby, she’s holding a meditational pose.
When Nate wonders how his parents could afford a trip to West Virginia, one says, “That’s why God invented credit cards.” We hear a phrase that seems to echo Ecclesiastes, with someone saying that “everything has its season.” The source, however, goes unmentioned.
While Nate never explicitly says, “I’m gay,” the movie clearly wants us to know that he is.
This is a grave disappointment to Libby, who apparently hoped that their friendship would morph into something more. When someone asks if they’re dating, Nate emphatically says “no,” while Libby says that it’s not important to define their relationship at this point. But when Libby lays her hand on Nate’s and confesses that she “only [does] the school shows to be with you,” Nate withdraws his hand gently.
“You know how much you mean to me,” he says. “But I’m not—like that.” (A woman sympathetically tells Libby that she’ll explain what “not like that” means. “I’ve been there, sweetheart, and I married the guy.”)
Perhaps she should’ve been more suspicious of the stereotypical signals that both Nate and the movie were sending. Anthony discovers, for instance, that Nate’s wearing lip gloss to school. His phone is covered in sequins. He likes musicals, for goodness’ sakes. And while none of those stereotypical cues necessarily say much about the sexual leanings of someone (plenty of heterosexual hair band members wore lipstick in the 1980s, after all), the movie embraces familiar homosexual tropes with ardor.
Indeed, Nate’s love for musicals seems to serve as a bit of a code for same-sex inclinations (as if a code was needed in this movie). When he laments that he’s the only boy in seventh grade who knows all the lyrics to Pippin, Heidi gently says that she’s sure others do. “Some just aren’t comfortable yet letting everyone know it.” (When Nate hears a school bully belt out a showtune in a bathroom stall, he’s pretty thrilled—promising the guy that his secret’s safe with him.)
Nate is sometimes nastily teased as being too effeminate: Someone calls him “Natey the Lady,” for instance. But he does hang out in the girls’ restroom with Libby, and at the end the two friends say that they love each other like sisters.
Nate says that he has a “pornographic memory,” meaning to say “photographic memory.” Some outfits worn by grown women can hug curves and show both leg and cleavage. Nate’s parents, in their West Virginia hotel room, snuggle and giggle as they prepare to (as the movie euphemistically tells us) celebrate their anniversary. We see both in a couple’s massage, too, exposing their bare backs to the camera. Anthony and a girl nearly kiss at a party, but the moment passes before any lips lock.
Nate accidentally thwacks a fellow middle school student in the face, bloodying his nose. (This leads to some relatively low-key threats by the bully.) We hear some exasperated references to murder.
God’s name is misused once. We also hear “crap.” We also hear, from Libby, that Anthony is using profane language off camera, and that he’d “bleeping like you to get in the bleeping truck.”
Nate and Libby lie a lot during the course of the film: They sneak off behind their parents’ backs; plot to pretend to be parents themselves, should any inquisitive guardians call; they (especially Nate) constantly mislead the casting directors for the Lilo and Stitch musical—trying to convince anyone and everyone who might ask that, why yes, they do have a guardian with them (as law dictates).
And when that doesn’t seem to be working, Nate isn’t above simply sneaking past the authorities or, in one case, doing a “pee dance” as a way to access an audition. (When he’s waved through to use the bathroom, he takes a right instead of a left.)
Nate spends quite a bit of the movie sneaking into and out of various locales, in fact. And if it wasn’t enough to run away from his parents and into Heidi’s more tolerant arms, he runs away from Heidi, too—escaping out a window to head to another audition.
Anthony also sneaks behind his parents’ backs, allowing a big party at his house.
“Find your light,” Heidi advises Nate as he prepares for an audition. “Everybody forgets that. How are they going to remember you if they can’t see you?”
Heidi’s speaking literally, but the movie means it as a metaphor, too. Don’t hide who you are. Don’t let fear steal your opportunities. Chase your dreams. Stand out. Find your light.
Now, on one level, those are not altogether terrible messages. God made us all different. He gave us talents and gifts that are uniquely ours. And fear—fear of anything in this world, at any rate—is something we shouldn’t fall prey to.
But taken too far, finding one’s metaphorical light is diametrically opposed to how we should be living as Christians. See, when we’re given opportunity to take the stage and stand in the spotlight, we hope—or at least we should hope—that people see God in us as the source of our gifts, our talents, our hope. But when Nate stands in the light, it’s because he wants the world to see him (even though, ironically, he’ll be playing someone else entirely). He sees the light as validation for who he is—a sign that he is worthy. Nate even says as much in the movie’s big musical number:
I’m working hard/ I’m almost there/And prove my worth and prove everyone wrong/Well maybe then I’ll finally feel like I actually belong.
That may be the saddest lyric in the history of showtunes this side of Les Mis, if you ask me. According to the tune, Nate’s self-worth is tied to success. If he fails, it means he’s a failure. And in a world where failure is so inescapable—where we all can expect our share—it makes me feel bad for Nate and what his future might hold.
Now, in some movies, we’d see the character grow beyond seeking validation through fame. He’d gradually discover that success is nice and all, but it can’t hold a candle to the real crowns we gather in life: family or friendship or faith or whatnot.
But Nate doesn’t grow as a character. Sure, he loves his family. He loves his one friend. But the movie’s not about them: It’s about how they help him achieve his own selfish ambitions.
But you know what makes those lyrics even sadder? The movie totally buys their message. Yep, success does cure all ills, we’re told. (But we’ll have to engage in a spoiler to tell you why.)
When Nate returns home, he’s called to the principal’s office, where he finds his parents waiting for him. “Did you take a trip without telling us?” they ask. Nate worries that he’s in trouble, but he’s not. All his forgiven, because he’s going to Broadway. He is validated at last … because he got a part in a musical.
Certainly, the movie’s barely veiled winks alluding to Nate’s sexuality will draw the interest—and concern—of families who don’t embrace the story’s pro-LGBT worldview. And Better Nate Than Ever does its best to both normalize and idealize those who identify with that community.
But when I think about how Better Nate Than Ever might truly influence the majority of its young viewers, I find that message of success equals self-worth to be potentially more influential, and more corrosive. After all, not all are inclined toward same-sex attraction. Many of us would never be. But all of us can be tempted to believe that we’re worthy because of the likes we get on social media, or the applause we get on stage, or the awards we get, or the raises we get, or the praise or the praise or the praise.
To dream is human. To chase after our dreams is laudatory. But to seek to validate our self-worth and identity based on whether those dreams come true, that’s damaging and dangerous. We need to find our self-worth elsewhere.
And we begin not by finding our own light, but by seeking the Light that illuminates everything else.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.