The name Brad’s Status alludes to the film’s central subject, and to the social media platforms its titular character is tormented by. Brad (Ben Stiller) owns a non-profit organisation, and has a contented wife (Jenna Fischer) and a talented musician son (Austin Abrams).
The film opens with Brad expressing doubts to his wife, Melanie, about their middle-class lifestyle, and continues in this vein. We see Brad’s innermost thoughts and feelings. He dwells on the successes of his wealthy college friends (Michael Sheen, Jemaine Clement, Luke Wilson star), and imagines them enjoying their lavish surroundings. His envious thoughts about his friends are coloured by their social media updates. It is a nice touch that the visualisations of his imaginings look filtered, like Instagram photos.
As he accompanies his son, Troy, to colleges to meet with admissions, it becomes increasingly clear that Brad is unable to contain his insecurities. When Troy appears likely to be accepted to Harvard, Brad seizes upon this as a potential personal victory. While Brad meets some young, idealist college students, he thinks about himself instead of listening to them, even picturing them in bikinis.
Despite many of Brad’s actions being excruciating to watch, he is a sympathetic figure. Stiller is great at portraying the cognitive dissonance of a troubled man confronted with middle age, similarly to his performance in Greenberg. Brad judges himself harshly for the thoughts he knows he shouldn’t have, such as his envy of his own son. When he listens to one female student, he considers the points she raises. After he tells her about his feelings of inadequacy, she asks him, “Why are you competing at all?”.
Brad doesn’t seem conscious of the fact that other people have their own problems, not visible on social media. He puts his desires ahead of his child’s at times. In this way, the film shows how social media can blind us to the struggles of others, when we know only of their successes. Brad is a privileged white man, and is satisfyingly alerted to this fact in one scene.
However, the experience of social media stoking anxieties, while extreme in Brad’s case, is surely near-universal. This film presents it not with out-loud laughs, but with wit and pathos that undeniably works in its favour.
Film reviewed at Cineworld, Edinburgh.
Image: Eva Rinaldi via Flickr