Greetings again from the darkness. Maybe the only great thing about adolescence is that dreams are still alive … and in full bloom. Writer-director Tim Federle has adapted his own best-selling Young Adult novel for the big screen, and the result is a fun, uplifting adventure that should really hit home for theater kids. It’s very much in the vein of HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL, and that makes sense as Mr. Federle is the creator of “High School Musical: The Musical – The Series”.

Casting is crucial in a film like this, and Rueby Wood excels as the titular Nate, a 13-year-old growing up in suburban Pittsburgh while dreaming of starring on Broadway. One of Nate’s challenges is that he can’t even get cast for a significant role in his school’s stage production. This is the first big screen appearance for young Wood, though he has starred in the national tour of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” He is immensely talented and sings, dances, and acts his way through this story in a way that draws us in to the point that we embrace his dreams and cheer him on.

To help her best friend overcome his disappointment in the school play and encourage him to chase his dream, Libby (Aria Brooks) informs Nate that auditions are being held for a Broadway production, “Lilo & Stitch: The Musical”. Excited for the opportunity, the two sneak off to New York City. By this point, we’ve seen that Nate’s mother and father (real life married couple Michelle Federer and Norbert Leo Butz) accept that their son is ‘different’, while Nate’s jock brother Anthony (Joshua Bassett) puts up with him the way most big brothers do with their weird siblings.

Once in NYC, the story takes a turn. Nate and Libby run into his Aunt Heidi (Lisa Kudrow). Although estranged from her sister, Nate’s mom, Heidi’s experience as an actress in New York has made her an idol to the young actor wannabe. Of course some of what happens at the audition is a bit far-fetched, but Nate’s optimism and determination and faith restore some of those long-past emotions in Heidi and the two establish quite a bond. In an interesting turn, Libby is much more than the loyal friend to Nate, as the experience/adventure shines a light on a path that suits her oh so well.

Rueby Wood delivers a sparkling performance as Nate, flaunting his vocal pipes in Times Square. Aria Brooks is every bit as impressive as Libby, and we get the feeling her career is about to explode. This is comedy and quasi-musical that acts as an uplifting adventure movie serving up life lessons along the way. Most parents would prefer their unaccompanied minor kids not hop a bus to the Big Apple, but the messages of pursuing a dream and the importance of friendship and family are well made. It’s nice to see a film directed at theater kids and one that the whole family (other than the youngest of kids) can enjoy together.

April 1, 2022 launch on Disney+


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