Review of Admission, Directed by Paul Weitz
College admissions: the final test of the helicopter parent. While it was no Deerfield or Andover, my college prep school career began with a meeting about college preparation the first month of freshman year and ended with a wall of paper stars announcing mine and my classmates’ acceptances to elite universities, mostly on the East Coast. My parents were helpful but mercifully not overbearing compared to many of my peers’. While some parents called teachers incessantly and had weekly meetings with college counselors, my parents gave their helpful advice and let me work out my applications with fear and a good bit of trembling.
It is with these fond memories I attended the new college- and parent-centric comedy, Admission. Tina Fey stars as Portia Nathan, an admissions counselor at Princeton University who relishes telling her eager applicants that there is no secret formula for getting into the elite school which, unfortunately, had just fallen from number one to number two in the US News and World Report rankings. She has worked in the admissions office for sixteen years since her own graduation from Dartmouth. She has also spent ten of those years living in comfortable complacency with the chair of the English Department, Mark, played by Michael Sheen—rrecalling what a long-term relationship between 30 Rock’s Liz Lemon and Michael Sheen’s character, Wesley Snipes, would have looked like. Portia gets an unexpected call from John Pressman (Paul Rudd), headmaster of the New Quest School, who encourages her to visit his unorthodox, un-Princeton-like campus to talk to his students. Portia’s drive to drum up more applications (and boost Princeton’s falling ranking) sends her to the rural school not far from her mother’s house. The students are indeed unorthodox: they question the whole “corporate system” of college applications—quite the contrast to the montage of eager uniformed boarding school students we were treated to earlier. But one student, Jeremiah Balakian, gives her a chance. And John, who we learn was in Portia’s class at Dartmouth, later reveals that he thinks Jeremiah is her son that she gave up after getting pregnant in college.
Admission was surprisingly heavy for a movie billed as a rom-com. While it was indeed quite funny and clever, the driving theme was parenthood and what makes for a meaningful life. The movie opens with a voiceover from Portia about millennial parents’ eager posturing to get their organically fed children into Princeton. What follows are several parent-child relationships thrown into relief. Portia’s mother, played by the delightful Lily Tomlin, was a second wave feminist who authored a book entitled The Masculine Myth. She relishes subverting the “mother-daughter” dynamic she scolds Portia for trying to maintain, demanding she call her “Suzanna” instead of Mom. We learn Portia’s father is an anonymous man Suzanna was intimate with on a train, without bothering to learn his name. As a result of her mother’s slavery to her ideology, Portia describes her upbringing as “raised by wolf, singular.”
John Pressman, the head of New Quest School, provides another study in parenting. John had adopted a son, Nelson, while working with the poor in Uganda. Portia teasingly and somewhat incredulously describes him as “a single dad traveling the world doing good.” His parenthood is tested by John’s desire to run away from his own blue-blazered upbringing by traveling the world—something Nelson, a sixth grader, has grown tired of, instead preferring Portia’s “normal boring adult” life of stability.
And, of course, the plot revolves around the effect on Portia’s character of the revelation that Jeremiah might be her son. Jeremiah is a strange kid, adopted by parents who did not go to college and who run a minimart. He almost failed out of high school, but had stellar test scores and wanted “nothing more in life than to be an autodidact,” leading John to call him a “prodigy.” Portia immediately falls for him upon learning he may be her son. She encourages him to apply to Princeton and somewhat illegally gives him (and John—her budding romantic partner after her relationship with Mark goes sour amidst a barrage of “loyal companion” dog metaphors and the entrance of a seductive Virginia Woolf scholar) advice on the admissions process. She sacrifices almost everything for Jeremiah, even forgetting the standard protocol for calling Princeton hopefuls “applicants” instead of “children” as her rival in the office points out. In a climax of the film, Portia explains that Jeremiah “was a lost kid, and then he was found.”
The parenting theme makes the movie much deeper than the posters may suggest. I was expecting to walk out of the film recommending it simply because I find Tina Fey delightful, but was surprised to find a real message about love and sacrifice at its heart. As even the unredeemed parent knows, love is sacrifice. The parents in the movie all learn this in their own way. They give up their dreams or admit their failings for the sake of their children. “Greater love has no one than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13) Admission is not just about the strings parents may pull to attempt to coerce their children into the Ivy League school of their dreams, but about the real choices parenthood involves.