I’m trying to imagine another movie here, one where a White boy wants to play a hefty trumpet-playing alligator and his East Asian gal pal BFF has his back as they make their way to Broadway tryouts. The only Black or African American actor with speaking lines is an annoying girl who has been pushed into well-practice precocity. How would that play out?
Instead, what I watched, more than once was “Better Nate Than Ever” which takes a 13-year-old Nate Foster (charmingly played by Reuby Wood in his first film role) to Broadway. Nate is obsessed by Broadway and musicals. This is something that puzzles his parents, Rex (Norbert Leo Butz) and Sherrie (Michelle Federer), and alienates him from his sports-loving older brother Anthony (Joshua Bassett).
Nate doesn’t seem like lead material. He’s scrawny, short and not boyishly cute or hunky. So it’s no surprise that he only gets to play part of the chorus in the school plays. He’s also not popular, but he does have one friend, Libby, who also auditions even though she isn’t that excited about being in front of an audience. From Libby, Nate learns there are auditions in New York for the Broadway musical adaptation of “Lilo & Stitch.”
His parents are going away that weekend, and Anthony is supposed to babysit his brother, but Nate asks to spend the night at Libby’s house. Nate and Libby board a bus, leaving Pittsburgh for NYC. Once at the audition, they meet an annoying cute Asian American girl (Cosima Ho) and learn that all minors must be accompanied by an adult. Nate’s Aunt Heidi (Lisa Kudrow) just happens to be in the same building for a different audition.
Heidi and Sherrie haven’t been close, but Nate feels Sherrie has been living his dream life. He and Libby fool her into being his guardian, but then Nate gets called back and becomes social media famous.
The film is based on Federle’s book by the same name and there is a sweetness to it all. And if I wasn’t Asian American and if I wasn’t aware of the constant marginalization and whitewashing that Asian Americans face in films, this would be a lovely movie that would give all the musical-loving misfits, gay or otherwise, something to smile about.
The Problem with Lilo & Stitch
The 2002 “Lilo & Stitch” takes place in Kauai, Hawaii. Although Lily Pelekai is supposed to be Hawaiian, the actress who voices her, Daveigh Chase, was not and certainly not representative of the population of Hawaii which is 37.79 percent Asian, 23.89 percent two or more races, 25 percent white and 10 percent Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander. Kauai is 36 percent Asian, 29 percent White and 9 percent Pacific Islander and 8 percent Hispanic/Latino.
Stitch/Experiment 626 was also voiced by a White person, Chris Sanders. I supposed a White person from the mainland USA might feel like an alien transported to a strange land where he is a minority while in Hawaii. There is that.
The film did have Hawaiian representation. Lilo’s older sister and legal guardian Nani Pelekai was voiced by Hawaii-born Tia Carrere who is Spanish, Chinese and Filipina. Hawaii-raised Jason Scott Lee (Hawaiian and Chinese) voiced Nani’s surfer friend David Kawana. So this seems to be the usual Hollywood casting of White people in the leads and some locals or authentic locals in secondary roles.
According to CinemaBlend, Federle chose “Lilo & Stitch” because:
One of the taglines from Lilo & Stitch is ‘Family means no one gets left behind,’ and I think for a lot of young kids and theatre kids and kids like Nate don’t necessarily always feel welcome in their own families. So I thought it would be cool to have him audition for a musical in which he’s going out for the role of an alien because I know when I was in middle school I felt like an alien in my own body, in my own community, in my own school.
Again, according to CinemaBlend, in Federle’s book, Nate was auditioning to play ET in a musical adaptation of the Steven Spielberg 1982 movie. Honestly, this would have played better. Spielberg created a safe, suburban and very White town for ET (San Fernando Valley). In the 1970s, that valley was predominately Anglo. (In 2006-2008, the demographics have White at 43 percent Hispanic/Latino, 41 percent; Asian, 10 percent and African American/Black at 3 percent).
Tim Federle was born in California (Foster City), but raised in Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh, if you’re curious, is 66 percent White, 23 percent Black or African American and 6 percent Asian. He did get on Broadway as part of the original casts of “The Little Mermaid” and the Bernadette Peters revival of “Gypsy.” So there is this beautiful slight sweetened authenticity to the film. Yet it is hard to ignore that Federle chose to a Disney feature that was set in the only state where the Asian American Pacific Islander ethnic groups are the majority and then sidelined them as background players to a film framing a White male. We’re in the backyard of Hawaii, but Hawaiian majority members are background. They are mere bystanders. Granted the White male protagonist is gay and thus becomes a minority, and that makes this film a great story about diversity and adversity, but that doesn’t mitigate or lessen the injurious outcome. Should we applaud White gay males following the footsteps of White heterosexual men trampling down non-White people?
At the beginning of this review, I asked if readers think Federle might have chanced this with another Disney animated feature that was predominately Black. I even want to imagine for a moment what would have happened if Tiana had been voiced by a White person instead of Anika Noni Rose. If you think there would have been no fuss, then we can absolve Federle for his choices. Yet I don’t think such situations would sit well on social media and that seems to indicate that a special privilege is afforded to Black people and not to AAPI. So I’d like readers to consider if this kind of marginalization was only something that in this time and era, one would consider acceptable with Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. Or to put it more simplistically, was this project okayed in a world where the views of racism were based on a binary of Black and White. As a color-blind review, I would give this film four stars. As someone questioning the diversity strategy of the film, the diversity scorecard is 2 stars out of five. AAPI people need to dream big as well.
“Better Nate Than Ever” is currently streaming on Disney+.