Thursday, April 7, 2022

Film Review: “Better Nate Than Ever,” “The Invisible Thread” and “Maybe Someday” are Complex Gay Films in These Times of Political Attacks

Better Nate Than Ever (c) Disney+

Better Nate Than Ever 
Streaming on Disney+ 

The word gay is never uttered in reference to our hero Nate, in Tim Federle’s wonderful movie adaptation of his own novel, “Better Nate Than Ever,” but boy, do we know. And hopefully every teacher in Florida can see that not saying someone is gay doesn’t mean you can’t also be the gayest thing since Lady Gaga showed up at the Oscars with Liza Minnelli. Speaking of the Oscars, “Better Nate Than Ever” is “CODA” for the “POTA” (Parents of Teen Actor) crowd. This, of course, is a fairy tale (all puns intended) of a Pittsburgh middle schooler named Nate Foster (Rueby Wood) who has dreams of being a big Broadway actor but unfortunately wasn’t even cast in the lead of the school musical, “Lincoln: The Unauthorized Rock Musical” (don’t ask). So, when his best friend Libby (Aria Brooks) informs him that there’s an open call audition for a “Lilo and Stitch” musical (this is Disney+, after all), it only takes a little deception and a lot of luck for Nate and Libby to be on a bus to New York City (and while it’s not the kind of “Guys and Dolls” New York that Nate dreams it is, it’s still a PG version). And, with the help of a distant aunt (a game Lisa Kudrow), Nate finally gets a chance to live his dream. Again, realism is out the door, but it sure is a fun ride. The movie rests on the shoulders of young Rueby Wood, and it is because of him that the movie works so well. He plays Nate with optimism and flair and Federle doesn’t go overboard on the gay signifiers, although to start the movie with a bedroom Wicked poster and Nate’s gold, glitter phone case could be considered slightly over this side of board. While technically not a musical, the movie does have a couple of new songs (one for Nate’s fantasy, another for the “Lilo and Stitch” musical), and for as many times we hear George Benson’s “On Broadway,” he might as well show up in the movie (no spoilers here). That “On Broadway” sequence is pure Disney schmaltz and while I will allow it for plot purposes, even in a movie about dreams, that’s almost a bridge too far. The only really unbelievable moment in the vibrant and enjoyable movie is when the casting director (Brooks Ashmanskas) states: “I’ve never had a boy sing ‘Let It Go’” in an audition. Honey, no way that’s true. 

The Invisible Thread (c) Netflix

The Invisible Thread 
Streaming on Netflix 

For the first half of the Marco Simon Puccioni’s “The Invisible Thread,” I was annoyed that we were seeing another gay story through the eyes of a straight protagonist and that this protagonist is a teenager named Leone Ferrari (Francesco Gheghi) means this is umpteenth Netflix movie about high schoolers. But then about the halfway point, the theme of the title becomes clearer (as in a family isn’t just defined by biological connections, but by invisible threads of love and caring) and I started enjoying its groove. Leone is an aspiring filmmaker who is doing a class project film about his two gay fathers (Filippo Timi and Francesco Scianna) and how they had an American surrogate (Jodhi May, who made such a huge debut in 1988’s “A World Apart” and needs to be a bigger star) carry their child by mixing their DNA together to impregnate her. They seem to be a happy family, but this being an Italian film, emotions overflow when an infidelity is discovered and everything once sacred, including the invisible thread that held this family together (as well as a Prada shirt and a wine collection), are suddenly at risk of severing. And if that wasn’t stressful enough, Leone is also crushing on the new transfer student from France (Giulia Maenza) and wants to show off how progressive his family is. Gheghi is charming as Leone, the awkward but not shy teenage son, and he has a naturalistic chemistry with the actors playing his fathers. It’s only when Puccioni throws in one last plot twist involving a paternity test that the movie loses its footing and teeters on soap opera histrionics. But the movie does bounce back and becomes a rather heartfelt and generous look at a nontraditional but in no way less legitimate family. 

Maybe Someday (c) Maybe Someday

Maybe Someday 
Festival Stream at CineQuest until April 17 

Michelle Ehlen is such an Indie filmmaker that this is her fifth film as a director and the first time I have encountered any of her films. “Maybe Someday” is an assured effort, and whatever limitations of budget makes the story about surviving a break-up feel that much more realistic and messy. Ehlen plays Jay, a non-binary photographer who is going through a separation from her wife Lily (Jeneen Robinson) and is crashing with Jess, her friend from high school (Shaela Cook), and her daughter before hopefully following her dream of moving to LA. But can Jay really move if she has any hope of reconciliation? She hangs onto her ancient flip phone for any text from Lily, while her new trans friend Tommy (Chad Steers) tries to get her to move on. Tommy is a risky character to introduce as he is very abrasive (he’s trying and failing to be a stand-up comic) and only a little caring and how much the audience will side with him depends on accepting this uneven balance. The best thing about the movie are the flashbacks to high school for Jay (now played by the excellent Eliza Blair) and Jess (Cameron Norman) where we see some of the roots of Jay’s insecurities and psychological demons. Shot in 17 days before and during the pandemic, nothing is sugarcoated in this very personal film for Ehlen, and the honesty of the storytelling is evident. This is not to say there are no joyous moments in the story, highlighted by a welcomed, if somewhat out-of-nowhere, upbeat drag routine. The movie is complicated, maddening but ultimately rewarding.

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