It’s the night before Brad (Ben Stiller) is taking his son Troy (Austin Abrams) to visit colleges, and he’s got insomnia. As he too often does, he finds himself on social media, taking a late-night inventory of his friends from college and the success they’ve achieved; “I felt like the world was rubbing my nose in something,” he despairs, and the way these friends, and his notions of their lives (good and bad) dominate his imagination, is one of the key subjects of Mike White’s Brad’s Status, in which taking his son to a crossroads in his life forces Brad to visit one of his own. “Some guys have empires,” he wonders. “What do I have?”
White’s script adroitly articulates a specific kind of middle-aged, middle-class ennui. “I just feel like we’re running out of potential,” he tells his wife. “This is it. We’ve plateaued.” Yet over the course of those few days, in ways both expected and surprising, he has his notions punctuated; everyone’s a mess, everyone’s fucked up, everyone’s scared, and everyone assumes everyone else is fine. And often, they are; the film’s best and wisest scene, in fact, finds Brad laying out all his woes, and instead of sympathy, he’s confronted with an intense, and direct, check on his privilege.
White leans perhaps too heavily on Brad’s narration, and could trust his audience more to figure things out on its own. But those voice-overs keenly capture the way one’s mind can surf from one tangent to the next, down a rabbit hole of hypotheticals, getting so into what we don’t have that we miss everything we do. You may have to be of a Certain Age for Brad’s Status to land. But for those who are, it rings loudly with hard truths.
Greg Barker’s The Final Year focuses on former President Barack Obama’s foreign policy team – John Kerry, Ben Rhodes, Samantha Power, Susan Rice – but the TIFF public screening I attended burst into spontaneous applause with Obama first appeared onscreen, and no wonder; nine months into the Trump Era, it’s already a kick in the head to remember all the grown-ups that use to inhabit our government. It’s tough to know how the film would play if, as its participants seem to have expected, Clinton had won; as it is, it plays like a cross between tragedy and Twilight Zone, between Obama’s idealistic talk of “passing the baton” to a team that will “continue that agenda” and Powers hoping that their progress on Iran, Syria, and climate change “will be harder to dismantle in the event that we take a different turn.”
At 89 briskly-paced minutes, The Final Year skimps a bit on some topics, and has a tendency to portray POTUS 44 through rose-colored glasses – most obviously, the word “drones” isn’t uttered once (a particularly glaring omission when he visits Laos to condemn the “bombs that we dropped decades ago”). But it’s nonetheless a fascinating peek at how this stuff works, and if the outcome of its firmly-in-the-background election makes this one of TIFF’s more depressing pictures (which is saying something), Barker somehow finds an upbeat note to end on, with Rhodes insisting, based on the patterns of history, that “the pendulum will swing back.” Here’s hoping.