By Kim Hughes
Anyone who’s ever been on social media knows only too well that “status anxiety” is a thing.
Instagram pictures of friends holidaying in lush faraway destinations, Facebook snaps of other friends dining at fabulous restaurants. And while social media has raised fear of missing out (a.k.a. FOMO) to heretofore unseen heights, the notion of keeping up with the Joneses is as old as the hills and, it seems, deeply rooted in our competitive, jealous little psyches.
Brad’s Status — a new dramedy from acclaimed writer-cum-director Mike White (Beatriz at Dinner, School of Rock, The Good Girl) — explores status anxiety of the real-world variety but with a twist.
Ben Stiller plays Brad Sloan, a middle class everyman with a good job, nice house, and stable family. As it happens, Brad’s closest former college cohorts have unanimously achieved fame and wealth far beyond him. Covetousness, self-loathing, and mild depression ensue, and come to a head during a road trip Brad takes with his gifted musician son, who is exploring his various college options.
The twist is that Brad’s son Troy — who should be the one feeling angst as competitive Ivy League institutions size him up — is utterly unconcerned with his station, and more preoccupied by the embarrassment wrought by his tightly wound dad in front of potential new classmates.
There is also the matter of Brad’s white privilege which allows him to ponder such existential matters as vocational rank vis-à-vis others in the first place. This last bit is brilliant played out in a squirm-inducing scene featuring Brad and a school friend of Troy’s named Ananya.
Original Cin sat down with Stiller and Austin Abrams, who plays Troy, during the Toronto International Film Festival to discuss Brad’s Status (partly shot in Montreal; scroll down for our mini-review) and how obsessive FOMO actually makes us miss out on more than we would if we simply viewed what we do have with gratitude and humility.
Original Cin: How did this movie get on your radar?
Ben Stiller: I am a big fan of Mike’s and it feels like he really took a chance with this movie, structurally, writing something that was not the norm. And I loved the script. As an actor, to get something good attached to a good director is a big deal. I’ve known Mike for a long time — not well but over the years, and we’ve never really worked together — and I knew his directing this thing meant was something special because he is a very sought-after writer.
OC: Ben, this is not your first time depicting a character in midlife crisis (see also While We're Young). How was this different from previous roles?
Stiller: I think Mike was trying to show the experience of being a person over the course of a couple of days, the stream of consciousness and ups and downs of it. Brad is definitely going through a crisis he is unable to reconcile and it’s bleeding out into his relationships. So, I think it’s about mild depression, a disconnectedness one can feel.
OC: Some of the scenes between father and son, Brad and Troy, are quite intense and intimate. How did you guys work out your chemistry?
Austin Abrams: A lot of it was on the page but it was also us spending time together. We went on two road trips together and that helped.
Stiller: And casting is a huge part of getting it right. I think we both knew that we wanted it to feel like a full and real father/son relationship. It also helped that Austin is very centred. From the very first reading of the script it was clear that Austin was the guy. Lots of young actors who auditioned for the part were good but Austin seemed to have this inner life going on.
OC: Ben, your offscreen life is pretty sweet, not unlike the characters Brad envies in the film…
Stiller: I suppose so. I am certainly aware of and extremely grateful for all the wonderful things in my life. But at the same time, everybody has issues to deal with in life and you can’t get away from death and health and loss and relationships and pain. And look, with a movie like this, it’s easy to say ‘Hey those are middle-age white guy problems’ something that is pointed out to Brad in the movie. But the reality is, if you do have enough food on your plate and you make enough money to live and your life is not subsistence-based which many people deal with every day, then there is space enough to ruminate on these other problems. That’s part of this.
If Brad was worried about putting a roof over his head, he wouldn’t be having these existential issues. I think people can relate to the aspect of the movie where people compare themselves to other people all the time. And I catch myself doing that a lot. It’s hard not to. I think everyone does that. The difference is how much you let it affect you and what you do with those feelings. Do you hang on to them? And until you acknowledge them, you can’t let those feelings go.
Abrams: And that’s the most important part: if you don’t at least acknowledge having those feelings they will end up eating you.
Brad’s Status has a ton of heart which makes its more middling aspects easier to swallow. While on a road trip with his son Troy to investigate prospective colleges, middle class Brad becomes obsessed with the triumphs of his former college friends, all of whom have become comparatively more successful. As Brad and Troy go from college to college, Brad painstakingly revisits his own life choices, and how things might have been different.
Much of the film takes place in Brad’s head and is delivered through voice-over which, depending on how you feel about voice-over, is a make-or-break proposition. Writer/director Mike White’s script is on-point. "I wanted to write something to tell my father I love him and think he is a success, even though he feels like he never lived up to his expectations for himself,” White has said, and that authenticity is palpable. The performances are also strong. But nothing here feels remotely new or novel. And White fails to leverage the dark humour you’d expect from a film with Jemaine Clement and Ben Stiller. - KH
Brad’s Status. Written and directed by Mike White. Starring Ben Stiller, Austin Abrams, Jenna Fischer, Michael Sheen, Jemaine Clement, and Luke Wilson. Opens September 22 in Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal, expanding in key cities September 29.