Brad’s Status The anxiety of middle class parenting: ‘What school is your child going to?’

Text: Rochelle Siemienowicz

“Are​ ​there​ ​any​ ​good​ ​schools​ ​over​ ​there?”​ ​asked​ ​Gina,​ ​wafting​ ​her diamond-ringed​ ​fingers​ ​in​ ​the​ ​air,​ ​as​ ​if​ ​the​ ​other​ ​side​ ​of​ ​Melbourne’s​ ​Westgate Bridge​ ​was​ ​a​ ​universe​ ​far​ ​far​ ​away.

And​ ​it​ ​was.​ ​It​ ​was​ ​a​ ​place​ ​we​ ​could​ ​almost​ ​afford​ ​a​ ​tiny​ ​weatherboard​ ​house. Unlike​ ​Gina​ ​we​ ​had​ ​no​ ​double-story​ ​eastern​ ​suburbs​ ​mansion,​ ​no​ ​holiday​ ​house on​ ​the​ ​coast,​ ​no​ ​property​ ​at​ ​all,​ ​not​ ​even​ ​a​ ​tiny​ ​investment​ ​portfolio.​ ​Our​ ​son Gabe​ ​had​ ​learnt​ ​to​ ​walk​ ​in​ ​a​ ​cramped​ ​rented​ ​flat​ ​down​ ​the​ ​street​ ​from​ ​Gina,​ ​and he​ ​was​ ​the​ ​only​ ​kid​ ​in​ ​playgroup​ ​without​ ​a​ ​designer​ ​pram.​ ​His​ ​father​ ​David​ ​and​ ​I felt​ ​these​ ​discrepancies​ ​deeply,​ ​though​ ​we​ ​tried​ ​not​ ​to​ ​care,​ ​focusing​ ​instead​ ​on our​ ​son’s​ ​toddling​ ​brilliance.​ ​“Not​ ​that​ ​walking​ ​early​ ​means​ ​anything​ ​about intelligence,”​ ​we​ ​reminded​ ​ourselves.

The​ ​question​ ​of​ ​schools​ ​always​ ​seemed​ ​so​ ​poisonous​ ​to​ ​us,​ ​a​ ​naked​ ​attack​ ​on​ ​our ability​ ​to​ ​provide​ ​for​ ​our​ ​child;​ ​a​ ​reminder​ ​we​ ​did​ ​not​ ​live​ ​in​ ​the​ ​egalitarian Australia​ ​we​ ​wanted​ ​to​ ​believe​ ​in.

Neither​ ​of​ ​us​ ​went​ ​to​ ​prestigious​ ​private​ ​schools.​ ​David​ ​grew​ ​up​ ​in​ ​New​ ​Zealand in​ ​the​ ​60s​ ​and​ ​70s​ ​where​ ​public​ ​schooling​ ​was​ ​a​ ​fine​ ​option​ ​for​ ​the​ ​son​ ​of​ ​a Physics​ ​professor.​ ​I​ ​was​ ​coddled​ ​in​ ​tiny​ ​church​ ​schools​ ​where​ ​the​ ​fear​ ​of​ ​Satan was​ ​more​ ​pressing​ ​than​ ​university​ ​entrance​ ​scores.​ ​But​ ​now​ ​we​ ​had​ ​to​ ​face​ ​a different​ ​and​ ​more​ ​brutal​ ​world​ ​where​ ​the​ ​choice​ ​of​ ​schools​ ​seemed​ ​to​ ​mean​ ​so much.

So​ ​I​ ​laughed​ ​a​ ​lot,​ ​and​ ​cringed​ ​in​ ​equal​ ​measure,​ ​as​ ​I​ ​watched​ ​Ben​ ​Stiller’s anxious​ ​parenting​ ​in​ ​​Brad’s​ ​Status​,​ ​a​ ​comic​ ​drama​ ​about​ ​a​ ​middle-class​ ​father who​ ​takes​ ​his​ ​teenaged​ ​son​ ​on​ ​a​ ​tour​ ​of​ ​East​ ​Coast​ ​colleges.​ ​“These​ ​are competitive​ ​schools.​ ​Just​ ​try​ ​not​ ​to​ ​put​ ​too​ ​much​ ​pressure​ ​on​ ​yourself,”​ ​Brad (Stiller)​ ​reassures​ ​his​ ​son​ ​Troy​ ​(Austin​ ​Abrams). “My​ ​counselor​ ​thinks​ ​I’ll​ ​get​ ​into​ ​pretty​ ​much​ ​anywhere​ ​I​ ​apply,”​ ​replies​ ​Troy mildly.​ ​He’s​ ​a​ ​quiet​ ​boy,​ ​sensitive​ ​and​ ​musical,​ ​and​ ​prone​ ​to​ ​blushing​ ​when​ ​his father​ ​embarrasses​ ​him,​ ​which​ ​is​ ​often.

“My​ ​kid’s​ ​going​ ​to​ ​Harvard!”​ ​exults​ ​Brad,​ ​loud​ ​enough​ ​for​ ​the​ ​entire​ ​café​ ​to​ ​hear, his​ ​pride​ ​breaking​ ​through​ ​because​ ​after​ ​all,​ ​this​ ​is​ ​about​ ​Brad’s​ ​own​ ​fraught social​ ​status​ ​as​ ​much​ ​as​ ​it​ ​is​ ​about​ ​concerns​ ​for​ ​his​ ​son’s​ ​future.

Preparing​ ​for​ ​the​ ​tour,​ ​Brad​ ​reminisces​ ​about​ ​his​ ​own​ ​college​ ​days​ ​and​ ​frets​ ​that all​ ​his​ ​old​ ​mates​ ​are​ ​now​ ​vastly​ ​more​ ​successful​ ​than​ ​him.​ ​He​ ​agonizes​ ​over​ ​their Instagram​ ​feeds​ ​where​ ​their​ ​glossy​ ​images​ ​appear​ ​in​ ​stark​ ​contrast​ ​to​ ​his​ ​own modestly​ ​affluent​ ​suburban​ ​existence.


Ben Stiller and Austin Abrams in ‘Brad’s Status’

In​ ​a​ ​comic​ ​montage​ ​of​ ​photos​ ​and​ ​video​ ​clips​ ​we’re​ ​introduced​ ​to​ ​Nick​ ​(Mike White)​ ​whose​ ​palatial​ ​house​ ​is​ ​featured​ ​in​ ​an​ ​architectural​ ​magazine;​ ​Craig (Michael​ ​Sheen)​ ​who​ ​works​ ​for​ ​the​ ​White​ ​House​ ​and​ ​is​ ​a​ ​television​ ​celebrity; Billy​ ​(Jemaine​ ​Clement)​ ​who​ ​sold​ ​his​ ​tech​ ​company​ ​at​ ​the​ ​age​ ​of​ ​40​ ​and​ ​now lives​ ​in​ ​Hawaii​ ​with​ ​two​ ​bikini-clad​ ​babes;​ ​and​ ​hedge​ ​fund​ ​owner​ ​Jason​ ​(Luke Wilson),​ ​who​ ​travels​ ​with​ ​his​ ​blonde​ ​wife​ ​and​ ​children​ ​in​ ​a​ ​private​ ​jet.

Unable​ ​to​ ​compete,​ ​Brad​ ​concentrates​ ​all​ ​his​ ​efforts​ ​on​ ​ensuring​ ​his​ ​one​ ​and​ ​only precious​ ​child​ ​will​ ​get​ ​into​ ​the​ ​best​ ​college​ ​possible,​ ​even​ ​if​ ​he​ ​has​ ​to​ ​humiliate himself​ ​by​ ​calling​ ​in​ ​favours​ ​with​ ​these​ ​influential​ ​friends.

How​ ​familiar​ ​this​ ​all​ ​was.​ ​David​ ​and​ ​I​ ​couldn’t​ ​afford​ ​private​ ​schools​ ​for​ ​our​ ​son, not​ ​if​ ​we​ ​wanted​ ​a​ ​house​ ​too,​ ​and​ ​maybe​ ​the​ ​odd​ ​family​ ​holiday.​ ​​ ​Anyway,​ ​we believed​ ​passionately​ ​in​ ​supporting​ ​the​ ​public​ ​system.​ ​“Yes,​ ​public​ ​can​ ​be​ ​okay, at​ ​least​ ​for​ ​primary​ ​school,”​ ​admitted​ ​Sally,​ ​another​ ​playgroup​ ​Mum​ ​in​ ​one​ ​of these​ ​interminable​ ​conversations​ ​we’d​ ​have​ ​about​ ​education​ ​for​ ​our​ ​children. “But​ ​is​ ​there​ ​a​ ​lot​ ​of…​ ​disadvantage…​ ​in​ ​the​ ​West?​ ​Might​ ​Gabe​ ​be​ ​neglected​ ​in​ ​a class​ ​full​ ​of​ ​kids​ ​who​ ​need​ ​extra​ ​help?”

“His​ ​father’s​ ​a​ ​scientist.​ ​I’m​ ​a​ ​writer.​ ​We​ ​might​ ​have​ ​to​ ​help​ ​him​ ​with​ ​his homework,”​ ​I​ ​replied​ ​tersely,​ ​wishing​ ​I​ ​could​ ​summons​ ​the​ ​details​ ​of​ ​those studies​ ​that​ ​regularly​ ​show​ ​kids​ ​do​ ​just​ ​as​ ​well​ ​in​ ​private​ ​and​ ​public​ ​schools.

“Comparison​ ​is​ ​the​ ​thief​ ​of​ ​joy,”​ ​as​ ​Theodore​ ​Roosevelt​ ​famously​ ​observed.​ ​Yet it’s​ ​difficult​ ​to​ ​avoid​ ​comparison​ ​in​ ​a​ ​world​ ​where​ ​social​ ​media​ ​allows​ ​for​ ​the presentation​ ​of​ ​perfectly​ ​curated​ ​and​ ​filtered​ ​lives.

Avoiding​ ​comparison​ ​is​ ​almost​ ​impossible​ ​when​ ​you’re​ ​raising​ ​children.​ ​Here they​ ​are,​ ​your​ ​most​ ​precious​ ​people,​ ​your​ ​biggest​ ​investments​ ​by​ ​any​ ​measure, and​ ​yet​ ​from​ ​the​ ​moment​ ​they’re​ ​born,​ ​they’re​ ​measured,​ ​weighed,​ ​tested​ ​and placed​ ​on​ ​a​ ​bell​ ​curve​ ​that​ ​ranges​ ​from​ ​disadvantaged​ ​to​ ​gifted.​ ​It’s​ ​hard​ ​to maintain​ ​perspective​ ​and​ ​to​ ​keep​ ​your​ ​own​ ​ego​ ​and​ ​fears​ ​in​ ​check.

“Be​ ​happy,​ ​be​ ​present.​ ​I​ ​love​ ​you!”​ ​chirps​ ​Brad’s​ ​cheery​ ​and​ ​sane​ ​wife​ ​Melanie (Jenna​ ​Fischer)​ ​as​ ​she​ ​drops​ ​him​ ​and​ ​Troy​ ​off​ ​at​ ​the​ ​airport​ ​for​ ​their​ ​trip.​ ​Easier said​ ​than​ ​done.​ ​Mindful​ ​living​ ​and​ ​mindful​ ​parenting​ ​are​ ​only​ ​ever​ ​temporarily achieved.

Brad’s​ ​ Status​​ ​is​ ​a​ ​terrible​ ​title​ ​for​ ​a​ ​film,​ ​and​ ​yet​ ​it’s​ ​perfect​ ​in​ ​its​ ​awkwardness, suggesting​ ​the​ ​bald​ ​updates​ ​of​ ​Facebook​ ​feeds​ ​with​ ​their​ ​shameless​ ​bids​ ​for ‘likes’.

Ben Stiller and Jen Fischer in ‘Brad’s Status’

The​ ​film​ ​is​ ​written​ ​and​ ​directed​ ​by​ ​Mike​ ​White,​ ​who​ ​previously​ ​wrote​ ​the thoughtful​ ​and​ ​funny​ ​screenplays​ ​for​ ​​School​ ​of​ ​Rock​​ ​(2003),​ ​​The​ ​Good​ ​Girl​​ ​(2002) and​ ​​Beatriz​ ​at​ ​Dinner​​ ​(2017).​ ​White​ ​is​ ​also​ ​the​ ​creator​ ​of​ ​the​ ​highly​ ​original​ ​and critically​ ​acclaimed​ ​HBO​ ​TV​ ​series​ ​​Enlightened​​ ​(2011​ ​–​ ​2013),​ ​starring​ ​Laura Dern​ ​as​ ​a​ ​self-absorbed​ ​office​ ​worker​ ​who​ ​creates​ ​havoc​ ​after​ ​experiencing​ ​a spiritual​ ​‘awakening’.​ ​​Enlightened​​ ​was​ ​funny,​ ​sometimes​ ​excruciating​ ​in​ ​the humiliations​ ​and​ ​hubris​ ​it​ ​depicted,​ ​but​ ​also​ ​ultimately​ ​compassionate,​ ​wise​ ​and warm.​ ​These​ ​rare​ ​(for​ ​Hollywood)​ ​qualities​ ​are​ ​evident​ ​again​ ​in​ ​​Brad’s​ ​Status​.

There’s​ ​no​ ​other​ ​actor​ ​as​ ​skilled​ ​as​ ​Ben​ ​Stiller​ ​at​ ​depicting​ ​the​ ​thrusting​ ​vanity and​ ​painful​ ​insecurity​ ​of​ ​the​ ​American​ ​everyman,​ ​from​ ​​Meet​ ​the​ ​Fockers​​ ​(2004) through​ ​to​ ​​The​ ​Secret​ ​Life​ ​of​ ​Walter​ Mitty​​ ​(2013)​ ​and​ ​​While​ ​We’re​ ​Young​​ ​(2014). He’s​ ​perfectly​ ​cast​ ​as​ ​Brad,​ ​a​ ​small​ ​man​ ​trying​ ​to​ ​be​ ​cool​ ​in​ ​his​ ​son’s​ ​eyes​ ​and​ ​in the​ ​eyes​ ​of​ ​the​ ​larger​ ​world.

He’s​ ​constantly​ ​rebuffed​ ​and​ ​refused​ ​when​ ​he​ ​requests​ ​an​ ​airline​ ​upgrade,​ ​asks​ ​a better​ ​table​ ​in​ ​a​ ​restaurant,​ ​or​ ​tries​ ​to​ ​impress​ ​Troy’s​ ​pretty​ ​female​ ​friends.​ ​It’s easy​ ​to​ ​laugh​ ​at​ ​him,​ ​but​ ​also​ ​easy​ ​to​ ​see​ ​yourself,​ ​perhaps​ ​a​ ​little​ ​more​ ​subtle, perhaps​ ​a​ ​little​ ​less​ ​shameless,​ ​but​ ​still​ ​tortured​ ​from​ ​time​ ​to​ ​time​ ​by​ ​insecurities and​ ​the​ ​desire​ ​for​ ​more​ ​success,​ ​more​ ​status,​ ​more​ ​respect.

“He’s​ ​happy,​ ​he’s​ ​fine,”​ ​we​ ​say​ ​breezily​ ​when​ ​people​ ​ask​ ​how​ ​Gabe’s​ ​going​ ​at​ ​the knockabout​ ​public​ ​high​ ​school​ ​he​ ​now​ ​attends​ ​in​ ​the​ ​inner​ ​West.​ ​So​ ​far​ ​it’s​ ​true, though​ ​we​ ​know​ ​how​ ​quickly​ ​these​ ​things​ ​can​ ​change.​ ​We​ ​try​ ​not​ ​pore​ ​over​ ​his school​ ​reports​ ​looking​ ​for​ ​his​ ​father’s​ ​brilliance​ ​in​ ​maths​ ​and​ ​science;​ ​try​ ​not​ ​to act​ ​too​ ​enthusiastic​ ​when​ ​his​ ​friendship​ ​group​ ​includes​ ​kids​ ​of​ ​many​ ​colours​ ​and sexual​ ​orientations.​ ​We​ ​try​ ​not​ ​to​ ​praise​ ​too​ ​much,​ ​or​ ​worry​ ​too​ ​much.

But​ ​this​ ​too​ ​is​ ​a​ ​pose​ ​we​ ​adopt,​ ​hoping​ ​to​ ​be​ ​seen​ ​as​ ​cool​ ​free-range​ ​parents​ ​who trust​ ​their​ ​kid​ ​to​ ​the​ ​universe​ ​–​ ​unlike​ ​those​ ​appalling​ ​helicopter​ ​parents​ ​we abhor.​ ​Unlike​ ​Brad.

In​ ​the​ ​final​ ​touching​ ​scene​ ​of​ ​​Brad’s​ ​Status​,​ ​Troy​ ​gives​ ​his​ ​dad​ ​some​ ​genuine wisdom:​ ​“Everybody’s​ ​just​ ​thinking​ ​about​ ​themselves.​ ​The​ ​only​ ​person​ ​who’s thinking​ ​about​ ​you​ ​is​ ​me.”

“And​ ​what​ ​do​ ​you​ ​think​ ​about​ ​me?”​ ​asks​ ​Brad,​ ​neediness​ ​in​ ​his​ ​voice.

“I​ ​love​ ​you,”​ ​says​ ​Troy.​ ​And​ ​you​ ​can​ ​almost​ ​hear​ ​his​ ​internal​ ​monologue​ ​adding: “But​ ​you’re​ ​a​ ​dick.”


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