“Never start a file you can’t finish.” This from Portia (Tina Fey), veteran Admissions Officer at Princeton, seated at her desk. So instructed, her colleague, Doug (Christopher Evan Welch), hovers in her doorway, still hoping for advice concerning a file he has started and about which he feels uncertain. “It’s so hard,” he whimpers. “You have to toughen up,” she advises.
Portia believes this, but still, she remains resolutely not so tough. At the moment that Admission begins, she’s hoping for a promotion, to replace her longtime, now retiring boss Clarence (Wallace Shawn), a position also coveted by the much tougher Corinne (Gloria Reuben). As the two women struggle for Clarence’s favor, Portia also contemplates an unexpected change in her life arrangement, namely, the live-in relationship she’s shared for years with insufferably self-important English professor Mark (Michael Sheen). It doesn’t help that this change is initiated by his apparent besottedness by an exceedingly tough other woman, a Virginia Woolf scholar deemed by more than one observer, “that horrible Woolf woman.”
Even as Portia ponders a future that seems suddenly uncertain, she faces another sort of crisis in the form of an applicant to Princeton, the “very special student” Jeremiah (Nat Wolff). On making the trek to the alternative school/farm Jeremiah attends in Vermont, she meets his headmaster, mentor, and amiably messy father figure, John (Paul Rudd). He and Portia are established right away as opposites fated to be attracted: where she has a routine and a home, he’s spent years wandering the world in search of adventures, with his 12-year-old adopted-from-Uganda son Nelson (Travaris Spears) in tow. But where she has little commitment to anything, he is all about devotion, to his various projects, from the school to Nelson, to Jeremiah. And yes, he soon becomes devoted to Portia too, who, as her name suggests, is in need of taming.
Portia’s name, not coincidentally, is a gift from her mother Susannah (Lily Tomlin), a ‘70s-ish feminist whose other achievements include a book titled The Masculine Myth and a lingering fan base of once young, sandaled and beaded activists. Most of these fans—including one now employed at Princeton, the bearded, professory Russian lit professor Polokov (Olek Krupa)—have since moved on to regular jobs and investments. But Susannah remains dedicated to her principles, frequently using Portia as her Exhibit A, a child conceived during a one-night stand, an emblem of her own freedom to choose as well as her resentment of socially dictated responsibility or submission to expectations.
Portia’s general lack of toughness, then, has an identifiable source (her lack of guidance as a child, her feeling that she was a project more than a person. That Portia now does her best to understand her own admissions office job as reading files and not people might be traced to this origin, as might her difficulty with exactly that framework. Again and again, Portia sees the applicants in the flesh, beseeching her, sitting on her desk, performing strenuous gymnastics to emphasize simultaneously their needs and their qualifications.
Portia’s increasing involvement in Jeremiah’s application leads her to feel both more and less certain. He’s odd and appealing, his transcript includes bad grades until he found John’s school but his test scores are off the charts. Because he’s unusual, the Princeton admissions board is put off, but Portia sees how to play politics and cheat a bit in order to get what she wants.
The trouble is that what Portia wants is not only changeable but also framed by what other people want. Sorting out the differences among these desires is, of course, the primary lesson she will learn in Admission, that is, her own difficult admissions process, into adulthood, or a particular form of womanhood, perhaps. Outfitted with revealing and also preposterous details of turf wars in administrative academia, her story isn’t precisely common, but it acts like it’s “universal,” at least in the sense that finding or creating a family unit is a “universal” ambition.
It’s telling, maybe, that Nelson’s confusion over what he wants helps to clarify what she (or the movie) wants. He sees in Portia an ideal mom, someone who stays in one place and keeps routine, no matter how debilitating it may be for her. When this news leaks to John, he too is surprised to think he might want that too, that his years of traveling and do-gooding may have had other sorts of effects on his son, that he might consider someone else’s needs or desires as he makes decisions. Unsurprisingly, he and everyone else here comes to see that their many decisions—on files, on applicants, on pregnancies, on commitments—have consequences, finished or not.