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 later this fall. And it's both a geographic and psychic touchstone in "Brad's Status," opening Friday.
In fact, 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 group, 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 has 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. Somewhere out there, our friends are surpassing us, making more money and having more fun and getting more sex while we hack away at our own sad lives. "We're running out of time," Brad tells Melanie at one point. "We've plateaued." (That feeling is brought to vivid life later in an excruciating scene when Brad attempts to obtain an airline ticket upgrade.)
Aided by an ethereally dissonant score by Mark Mothersbaugh, "Brad's Status" gives full voice to those midlife worries, but also to the reassurance that it's possible to recognize the things that really matter. As he did in his screenplay for this summer's "Beatriz at Dinner," White manages to skewer contemporary poses and anxieties, as well, when a young undergraduate, played in a brief but wonderfully lived-in turn by Shazi Raja, confronts Brad with his own self-pity and solipsism.
"Brad's Status" — which was co-financed and released by Amazon Studios, owned by Jeffrey P. Bezos, who also owns The Washington Post — 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.
R. At area theaters. Contains obscenity. 101 minutes.