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On college tours, a father with plenty of baggage in 'Brad's Status'

By: Ann Hornadady The Washington Post
September 29, 2017 Updated: October 2, 2017 at 4:35 pm
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Austin Abrams (left) stars as "Troy" and Ben Stiller (right) stars as "Brad" in director Mike White's "Brad's Status," about a father accompanying his son on a college tour. MUST CREDIT: Jonathan Wenk - Amazon Studios.

Starring Ben Stiller, Austin Abrams, Jenna Fischer, Luke Wilson; directed by Mike White; 101 minutes; R for obscenity.

Sacramento is having a moment. California's capital city provides a dramatically undramatic backdrop for Greta Gerwig's festival favorite, "Lady Bird," which will appear in theaters this fall. And it's both a geographic and psychic touchstone in "Brad's Status," opening Friday.

The two films have more in common than one might assume. They're both coming-of-age tales in which protagonists struggle to claim their authentic identities. But whereas in "Lady Bird" the heroine is a high school senior longing to break away from her family, in "Brad's Status" Ben Stiller plays a father accompanying his son on college tours, as his regrets, ruminations and reflections on where he went wrong in life bubble to the surface, just as his child's own hopes and dreams are on the cusp of being realized.

What a downer. But "Brad's Status" is anything but. Written and directed by Mike White, "Brad's Status" contains moments of delicate humor, as Brad Sloan - portrayed by Stiller with the actor's characteristically pained expression of incipient mortification - toggles between humiliation at not having achieved the material success he now craves, and pride at having stuck to his values and created a happy family life. The founder of a nonprofit, he lives a modest upper-middle-class life with his wife, Melanie (Jenna Fischer), who works for the government, and their son, Troy (Austin Abrams), a gifted musician who's been told he'll have no trouble getting into Yale. But the soft-spoken Troy, flawlessly played in a subtly revelatory performance by Abrams, wants to study with his idol at Harvard.

If that sounds like a first-world problem, rest assured that the observation is made explicitly in "Brad's Status," in which the title character is obsessively revisiting his college days at Tufts - specifically, the financial success and world renown of his undergraduate buddies, played by Michael Sheen, Luke Wilson, Jemaine Clement and White himself in a series of amusing fantasy sequences and real-life encounters. In many ways, "Brad's Status" is the grown-up version of the recent millennial indie "Ingrid Goes West," in that it dramatizes the current epidemic of envy and doubt brought on by constant social-media comparison.

"Brad's Status" doesn't tie up every loose end. But Stiller's hyper-self aware character finally turns a kind of corner, successfully navigating the ruefulness of the past and the fear of the future into the safe harbor of right now. "Be present," his wife calls as he and his son embark on their journey. She makes it sound so easy.

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