Fey, as Portia Nathan, is a straight-laced, boring, by-the-book admissions officer at one of the most difficult to get into colleges in the world: Princeton. She has been there 16 years, is in a dead-end relationship with Mr. Cliche English professor, whose idea of bedtime reading is Chaucer in Middle English, a quick bit that is in itself mildly hilarious. Portia is competing with another woman (Gloria Reuben) in
the office to take over the job of head admissions officer (Wallace Shawn), and in proving her mettle signs up to visit as many schools as she can to talk about How To Get Into Princeton. (Advice: Be yourself.)
JUST HOW YOU MIGHT WANT YOUR SON TO TURN OUT
John (Paul Rudd), headmaster of an alternative school, phones out of the blue and invites her to come to the New Quest School, largely to meet Jeremiah, (Nat Wolff), a prodigy whose GPA would typically disqualify him from even uttering the word, Princeton. But Jeremiah has been educating himself since he was eight because teachers couldn't keep up with him. He is unquestionably brilliant, off-the-charts likeable, and exudes just enough gawky charm to be the kind of young man you want your daughter to marry--or if you are a first mother--the son your "adopted-out" son turned out to be. And Jeremiah is adopted, what else?
The kicker is [spoiler alert, and this review is full of them], John is a friend of Portia's roommate at Brown and knew that Portia had a baby during college and gave it up for adoption. He remembers the date of the birth so well because it was Valentine's Day. Having seen Jeremiah's amended birth certificate--in fact, he has a copy of it to show Porita--he knows that Jeremiah's birth date and place of birth coincide with when and where Portia had a baby boy. The coincidences here are thick, yes, and how he happens to have a copy of the amended birth certificate is not revealed, but I liked this movie enough to suspend belief and go with the flow.
As such stories go, Portia's life is about to fall apart. Her insufferable boy friend leaves her for a preeminent Wolfe scholar, who's pregnant with his twins; her feelings for headmaster John surprise her. John is a good guy who goes around the world saving people and in the process, has adopted an eight-year-old from Uganda. Before you think, Oh, he stole someone's baby, he quickly adds that he was in Uganda putting in clean-water system or doing some other good work and the boy's mother was his friend, and she died, along with her brother, the boy's uncle, in a car crash, and you already know there is no daddy stepping up to the father plate. Neat, but I was pleased scriptwriter Karen Croner added that to a script that has a lot of twists and turns, just like real life. At least, adoptive dad knew the mother in person and was in-country for an extended period. Nelson, the eight-year-old is naturally precocious (this is a comedy of sorts, remember, boring kids won't do), outspoken and longs for a boring, settled life in one place--just the kind of life Portia has. John is planning to leave the school and head out to some other country in six weeks, and take his son with him. Nelson would rather stay put.
AN INTELLIGENT SCRIPT WITH HUMOR AND HEART
Is Portia really Jeremiah's "birth" mother? Can Portia make his unusual background but brilliant SAT and Advanced Placement test scores (he took no AP courses), a stellar review by a distinguished professor, get Jeremiah past the cruel and demanding admissions board? Is she doing it because he might be her son? Or just because? After she comes to believe he might be, she learns that he doesn't like heights (neither does she) and he endearingly mimics her when she does something with her lips when she is frustrated. Her face lights up with these similarities. Been there, done that, right?
Director Paul Weitz has taken Croner’s intelligent script — adapted from Jean Hanff Korelitz’s novel — and wrings out solid humor from Portia’s comic struggles to balance her professionalism with her newly unearthed maternal instincts. Weitz also has fun depicting the cutthroat competition in academia, where transcripts and essays can substitute for a genuine understanding of a student’s inner being. In one hilarious scene, aspiring students appear briefly and list accomplishments and sympathy stories that might shift the response from "Deny" to "Accepted." In another, students who don't get in fall through a trap door.
But as a first mother, I'm watching the story unfold wondering, thinking, Well, let's get back to Portia and Jeremiah. Is she going to tell him who she thinks she is? Then what? Portia herself has no idea who her father is, as her feminist-academic mother (wonderfully portrayed by the irrepressible Lily Tomlin) had a one-night stand with someone she met on a train, and never asked his name. Like I said, there are a lot of different themes here.
Before Portia talks to Jeremiah about her identity, she approaches his working-class adoptive parents and thanks them profusely for all they have done for their son, while they stand quizzically by wondering why in the hell she is talking like that. She does her very best to get him accepted into Princeton, believing that he is her son. [Major spoiler alert ahead] Near the end, she does find the courage to make the admission (yes, double-entrende) to Jeremiah that she thinks she is his mother...but he tells her she is not, he met his "birth mother" last year and she is a hair dresser. The copy of the birth certificate that John had was a bad copy, and the time didn't come out clearly. Somewhere along the line Portia says the usual stuff about your parents are your parents, etc. I'm just...me. But so it goes.
I never actually said those words to my daughter, or her adoptive parents, because they seemed unnecessary, but before my daughter was put on the phone the first time I called and spilled the improbable beans of my identity, I did have to tell her adoptive father I was not about to "steal" their daughter/my daughter, I just wanted to "know" her. She was a few years younger than Jeremiah at the time.
Most reviewers have played down the adoption theme, yet it is a major part of Admission. While these movies are often hard on us--we fail to see the humor, as in the despicable Juno--any first mother would have to be mighty picky to find anything wrong with the script and the interaction between the characters. In one quick scene between Portia and her competition for the top admissions job at Princeton (Shawn is retiring), the other woman says as "a mother she understands the value of teamwork," and Fey says "I'm not a mother" but she understands teamwork anyway. Hearing that, I remembered the many times in the past, before I knew my daughter, when I left someone with that impression--I'm not a mother--as I was thinking, well, actually, I am a mother. Just not in the way you would understand. Fey handles this bit with grace and just enough hesitation. My heart was thumping out of my chest at this point.
Admission presents the first mother as a successful single woman with a career and who has to confront this issue of the son she gave up for adoption--that seemingly comes out of the blue--and she handles it well. Understand it is a comedy, or dramady, and there are a couple of moments of silly single-career-woman-confronts-old-boyfriend-with-new-GF-getting-married moments etc that border on slapstick, but they lift the levity. If a lot of people see this who have never thought about a birth mother before, or a teen's curiosity about his roots and original parents, this is a good thing. For adoptive parents, Admission might be the movie that gives them an opening to talk to their children about their own curiosity. Adoptive parents do need to be the ones who bring this up, because the adopted adolescent or teenager is likely to feel this subject is off limits, and just bringing it up will cause their adoptive parents grief.
IS THE FLESH-AND-BLOOD CONNECTION REALLY NECESSARY?
Of course you know I am a crier, if you have been following this blog at all, and I'm sitting there in the dark near the end with tears streaming down my face and oh so glad that my husband and I are not going to dinner immediately after with the two other couples we are having dinner with TONIGHT, a day later. We were planning to go to the movie yesterday afternoon, and then husband Tony wanted to pull a switchero and go to the movie today, and then, right after we saw the movie, meet our friends. Even without considering the birth-mother plot line--this is a comedy, right?--I objected. I'd just gotten a haircut and my hair looked great with a professional blow dry, who wants to stay home? He agreed, thank god, and off we went yesterday. I looked in the mirror after we left the theater and anyone could have seen that I had been crying. So. Husband Tony added that whoever wrote the script had some real knowledge and feeling for birth-mother/adoptee sensibility. I heartily agree.
But you will laugh too, for Admission is not an unreconstructed vale of tears even for viewers like us. Fey and Rudd play off each other well, her single-woman-with-terrible-boy-friend life falling apart around her is familiar and funny at the same time, and the snappy dialogue keeps things humming. The story doesn't end after she finds out she is not Jeremiah's mother, but I'll leave it here. I've told you enough already.
In looking over other reviews, I came across one by a woman, Stephanie Zacharek, at the Village Voice, who carps over the adoption theme:
"The fact that Jeremiah may be Portia's flesh and blood is supposed to intensify the story's moral complications. But, really, what difference does it make? Wouldn't Admission be more potent if the heroine took action on behalf of a kid in need who wasn't her own?"Well, actually, the movie would be a whole lot flatter and less interesting if Portia was not possibly his biological mother. In fact, it would just be a silly story without any oomph, only about the trials and tribulations of getting into the Ivy League. I'll go out on a limb her--not very far--and say that some women want to deny the emotional pull of biology because adoption is beating its fast heartbeat somewhere near in their own lives. As for me, I will watch Admission again as soon as it comes to a television set nearby. Like, mine. The second time around I often don't weep.--lorraine
Full disclosure here: Husband Tony is a graduate of Princeton and does student interviews for aspiring Princetonians from Long Island, which gave an extra frisson to the movie for us, as if the adoption theme wasn't enough. Most students who apply do not actually go to the school for an interview, as is shown in the movie. They spend an hour with Tony at the local Starbucks in Bridgehampton, and he writes up a detailed report that is read by someone at Princeton. Only about one in ten who apply make the grade.
The movie captures the spirit of the school we occasionally visit, and parts of it were obviously shot there. The scenes of the students and parents taking a tour of the school were a spot-on satire of the tour that I went on myself. One of the boys in the group I was in loudly reminded anyone within earshot that he was a student at "St. Paul's," one of the hoist-toity prep schools in the East that funnels as many graduates as possible to Princeton. Oddly enough, coming from a top prep school in the East limits your chances of getting in, as most of your classmates, and kids from every other prep school in the East, are also applying. Think diversity. Rich white boys from elite schools are a dime a dozen. Princeton, under a woman president, has become a very diverse place. We've veered off the track here, but hey, it's my blog! and I do have a life outside of adoption.
Additional [and final] disclosure: I went to school with Lily Tomlin, and knew her slightly. She was a star in our theater group, doing Shakespeare and other plays, and I was the managing editor of the college daily at Wayne State University, which is how our paths tangentially crossed. And Tony used to be friends with her personal assistant. So the world turns. --lorraine
Admission (the book)
Portia Nathan is a thirty-eight-year-old admissions officer at Princeton University, a place so discriminating that it can afford to turn down applicants who are “excellent in all of the ordinary ways” in favor of the utterly extraordinary—“Olympic athletes, authors of legitimately published books, Siemens prize winners, working film or Broadway actors, International Tchaikovsky Competition violinists.” Portia compares her job to “building a better fruit basket” and achieves career success by helping her institution pluck the most exotic specimens, but her personal life is permanently on hold because of a traumatic incident from her own college years that she has never come to terms with. Although the reader may unravel the mystery of Portia’s past before the plot does, the novel gleams with acute insights into what most consider a deeply mysterious process. --The New Yorker. Our friend, birth mother Linda, read the book and loved it. I will order it.
From FMF (other movies)
Birth Mother's Lament: The Pain of Giving Away My Baby
Is adoption ever funny to the adopted, to first mothers?
JUNO COMES TO REALITY TV: 16 AND PREGNANT PREMIERES ON MTV
Gay Moms Want Sperm Limits in The Kids Are All Right
The real end of The Deep End of the Ocean: Boy returns to his first family
Then She Found Me: The Movie