So you want to go to Princeton? In addition to having a stellar application, you'd better have a stomach for rejection. Because the odds of acceptance, well, they're not good.
Each year, about 25,000 earnest applicants jockey for a scant 1,300 slots at the hallowed Ivy League institution. Wielding godlike power in the lives of those would-be freshman is a team of exacting admissions officers, trained to spot the perfect Princeton candidate.
So what's the secret to getting in?
"The secret," admissions officer Portia Nathan tells some starry-eyed applicants, "is to be yourself. If this is the right place for you, this is where you'll be." It's a message that perfectly put together Portia has delivered a thousand times—always with a perfectly professional smile. It's not a message that—after 16 years on the job—she thought might one day have to apply to her own perfectly coiffed life.
Everything in Portia's well-oiled existence is moving along at full throttle down just the right road … until she runs into a quick succession of speed bumps. First, the persistent head of a new experiential-learning charter school won't leave her alone. And when Portia finally acquiesces and visits John's facility, he tries to convince her that a savant-like student named Jeremiah would be a fantastic fit for Princeton—never mind his lousy grades.
But there's more, John tells her. A lot more. He suspects that Jeremiah, who was given up for adoption immediately after his birth, is actually Portia's son.
Portia wants to deny that claim. But all of John's information fits a secret pregnancy she had in college—one that ended with her giving up her newborn son. Portia's barely begun to recover her emotional equilibrium after that shocker when she finds out that her live-in partner of 10 years, a bookish Chaucer scholar named Mark, has impregnated a wolfish Virginia Woolf scholar and is getting married to her.
As Portia warily eyes the wreckage that now surrounds her crashed life, she finds herself unexpectedly embracing her maternal instincts on Jeremiah's behalf. She's determined to get him into Princeton, never mind that on paper he isn't Princeton material. And then there's the complicating fact that she's falling in love with John.
All in all, it's a lot more drama than this buttoned-down admissions officer has had to deal with in a long time—drama that demands a third-act confession to Jeremiah that he's her son.
The movie's title, Admission, serves as a double entendre for its deeper themes. Portia has worked hard to craft the perfect life. Her desk is perpetually spotless. She knows how to select candidates that will enhance Princeton's sterling reputation. And she's perfectly happy in her relationship with Mark—never mind that he would rather read Chaucer than respond to her tentative hints that she'd like more intimacy.
When those speed bumps turn into roadblocks, however, Portia's forced to confront the fact that she wants more than her marriage-free rapport with Mark can give. And even though she's always tried to tell herself she doesn't like children, she warms to the idea of being Jeremiah's mom. Soon her relationship with him begins to morph into something sweetly motherly (albeit a bit on the smothering side of things) as she does everything she can to help him get into Princeton. (She actually does too much, the details of which we'll get to in a minute.)
Turns out Portia's ambivalence over motherhood was likely influenced by her own mother, a fiery and flamboyant "I don't need a man" feminist named Susannah. Theirs is an extremely complicated relationship, with Mom always spouting off reasons why Portia's better off alone. Eventually, however, Portia and her mom work through considerable baggage in their bond as both admit that utter independence and perfectionism aren't all they're cracked up to be.
Another family-oriented aspect of the film involves John. He's passionate about humanitarian relief work as well as training up a new generation of students to embrace the idea that they can make a positive societal impact. Because of that, John adopted the Ugandan son of friends after all the boy's relatives died. We see that young Nelson (who's in 6th grade) craves stability more than anything. So just as Portia must admit her perfectionist, controlling tendencies, so John must come to grips with the idea that his idealistic, globetrotting altruism may not always be the best thing for Nelson.
[Spoiler Warning] Portia does eventually summon the courage to tell Jeremiah he's her son. But it turns out Jeremiah isn't her son after all. When she finds this out, John then helps Portia work through yet another disappointment. She responds by getting in touch with Social Services to let her son, wherever he may be, that she'd like to meet him. (He responds via letter that he's not ready yet.)
In the end, John and Portia are well on their way to creating a family together, and Nelson is glad to have something like a mother for the first time since his own mom died. (Marriage is still a missing ingredient, though. More on that later, too.)
Someone is described as a recent convert to Buddhism.
Portia and Mark are shown in bed together wearing pajamas. It's clear from his disinterest in her that their physical relationship isn't what she'd like it to be. Later, Mark confesses that he's had sex with another woman and that she's pregnant with twins. During a dinner party right after Mark leaves her, Portia comes out with a plate full of chicken and barks, "Who likes breasts? Mark likes breasts. The more the merrier."
Portia and John kiss passionately several times. Twice it's implied they have sex. The first scene pictures them in bed together after the fact with their bare shoulders and arms visible. The second time we see them begin to unbutton their clothes … and then button up again afterward. We see both Portia and John in the shower, standing in adjacent stalls. (We see their bare shoulders.) Portia wears a cleavage-baring shirt.
Students at a party confuse Portia's motherly affection for Jeremiah as a sexual come-on, with one commenting, "Dude, what a cougar." There's talk of a couple spending the night on a couch. Portia's mom asks about her sex life. Portia talks about her mom's breast size. (But there's more to it than Susannah "just" getting breast implants. She's recently undergone a double mastectomy and is trying out "larger" prosthetics just to see what it feels like. She concludes that "big boobs get in the way." Later, Portia tells her mother, "Your breasts are sliding off," and we see the results under her shirt.)
We learn that Portia has always been told that her father was a stranger on a train whom her mother sought out for relationship-free sex/impregnation.
When Portia and John have an argument outside Susannah's house, Mom thinks there's trouble and comes out with a shotgun, firing a warning shot into the air. A distraught Portia accidentally runs into her ex's car with her own just as his wedding ceremony is ending. Nelson vents his frustration with his dad by kicking a soccer ball at his head.
Various conversations reference murder, the death penalty and a fatal car crash.
Crude or Profane Language
Thirty-plus profanities, including one verbal f-word and one written (censored) f-word, four verbal s-words and one written s-word (treated the same way as the f-word). "A‑‑hole," "d‑‑n" and "h‑‑‑" are each used five or six times, "a‑‑" and "b‑‑ch" once or twice each. We hear crude anatomical slang including "tw-t" and two uses of "pr‑‑k." There are about 10 misuses of God's name (including four or five pairings with "d‑‑n") and two misuses of Jesus' name.
Worth noting: John regularly swears in front of his young son, as well as his students.
Drug and Alcohol Content
While Jeremiah is visiting Princeton, staying overnight with a student, he goes to a party at which lots of young adults are drinking what's presumably alcohol from red cups. (Portia finds him and asks him what he's drinking, and he says it's diet soda.) Adults drink wine at meals.
Other Negative Elements
Portia's attempt to get Jeremiah into Princeton is ultimately voted down by her colleagues. Then, when Portia learns that someone the admissions team had accepted will be going to a different school, she rams Jeremiah into the open spot by changing his file and computer entry on her boss's computer. (To the film's credit, Portia's unethical behavior is discovered, and she loses her job because of it.)
After a particularly tense scene, Portia vomits. Passersby wrongly assume she's drunk.
We've all seen movies that make us think, "Man, that could have been really cool or really sweet except for ___________."
Admission made me feel like that.
In many ways, this dramedy starring Tina Fey and Paul Rudd sports a sensitive soul enhanced by a strong pro-family, pro-adoption message. Fey's Portia finds her world turned upside down by the knowledge that she may have a gifted son in need of her help. As she warms to the idea, however, you can tell she's finally ready to embrace motherhood.
Likewise, Rudd's John demonstrates admirable commitment to his adopted son, Nelson, and to humanitarian causes. John's weakness—which his budding relationship with Portia reveals—is that he's better at giving himself to causes than relationships. But he comes to admit that his idealism may be damaging his relationship with Nelson, and he makes a sacrificial decision to stay put for once instead of heading overseas again.
When Portia and John connect, then, they (and we) see how their differences (both good and bad) mesh in a mending sort of way. And it's clear Nelson already has begun to attach to Portia as a much-needed mother-figure.
The price of admission to all that, though, includes (indirect) exposure to Portia and John's premarital sexual relationship and 30 or more vulgarities and profanities. As for grades, well, A's and B's sit in the same column as C's and D's, which is probably not good enough for the likes of Plugged In, er, I mean, Princeton.