Admissions (2004)

In Admissions, precocious 18-year-old Evie (Lauren Ambrose) seeks approval from her mother, Martha (Amy Madigan). In an effort to alleviate Martha’s guilt over her youngest, brain-damaged daughter Emily (Taylor Roberts), Evie pretends that Emily is writing poetry; in truth, Emily is reciting Evie’s words.

This deception serves as catalyst for Evie’s own emotional unraveling. Evie seems to embody the notion she voices in the form of a question: “Do you ever have the feeling that there is a lot more going on than what’s on the surface?” She appears “well-adjusted,” looking after Emily and getting top grades. Distracted during the college admissions process, Evie repeatedly blows interviews by misbehaving or missing questions. During her interview with Stanford, she glances nervously around, answering the admissions officer’s questions with indifference and uncertainty. The only thing she seems sure of is her devotion to Emily. “Who would you emulate?” the interviewer asks. “My sister,” says Evie.

This near obsessive concern for Emily also limits Evie’s experience, even her desire for experience. While she maintains a close friendship with her neighbor James (Fran Kranz), she remains blind to his love for her. In this, Evie parallels her mother, who withdraws from a relationship with Evie’s English teacher, Stewart Worthy (Christopher Lloyd), before it much begins. Both mother and daughter resist intimacy with men, using Emily as an excuse. And Stewart, like James, seems genuinely affected by the object of his affection, even crying when Martha turns him down. “I just can’t,” she says, by way of not explaining. But Martha’s isolation — like her neglect of Evie and focus on Emily — not only leaves her lonely, but also provides a poor role model for her needy older daughter.

Evie resorts to imagining that her father, Harry (John Savage), who walked out on the family years before, now resides in the basement and builds model trains and cities. In her fantasy, Evie finds in her father validation and support she’s missing from her mother. When she visits with her version of Harry, she tells him all the things she can’t tell Martha, and he says just the right thing: “Nothing is too good for my girl.” Evie clings so desperately to this hope of the perfect parent that she eventually loses all hold on reality.

The title Admissions thus serves a dual purpose. Not only does it refer to Evie’s college entrance process, but it also unveils the self-sustaining lies and fantasies that have shaped her experience for years. She relays her make-believe life to a college admissions officer, telling him that her father works as an investment banker and still lives at home. Inconsistencies like these, coupled with Evie’s tenuous relationships with her mother, James, and Emily help illustrate her difficulties with emotional complexities. She can’t admit anything, least of all her own needs or doubts.

Shutting out the rest of the world, Evie and Martha opt for predictability and familiarity. Dawn O’Leary’s script, based on her play, figures this mix of resistance and fragility in the repeated image of a pet bird. “Remember when you opened the cage and mom was afraid the bird would fly out?” Evie asks Emily. “You knew when you opened the door the bird wouldn’t fly away.” Ironically, and quite unlike Evie and her mother, Emily seems emotionally unfettered, capable of entering into a viable, intimate relationship with another human being. Though Evie and Martha feel trapped by their sense of responsibility to Emily, they are not open to what she might teach them.