The most surprising thing to say about the adoption plots in Paul Weitz’s new film Admission (starring Tina Fey and Paul Rudd) is, really, how routine they seem. Six years ago — before Juno – it would have been remarkable to find a movie revolving around a birth mother and her story. But now, after Juno, 16 and Pregnant, Teen Mom, Glee, The Baby Wait, a birth mother story seems run of the mill. In fact, while waiting for Admission to being, there was a premiere for The Big Wedding, (starring Diane Keaton, Robert DeNiro, Susan Sarandon, and many others) whichalso features a birth mother meeting her son’s adoptive family for the first time. Have we had enough of these stories?
I’m all for Hollywood to keep trying, since I feel like none of these representations have quite gotten it right. This isn’t surprising — movies are about being sensational and dramatic, and less about real-life complexity. The problem with Admission is that it manages to make adoption both a narrow and overwhelming part of the story. When Portia Nathan, an admission counselor at Princeton, discovers that an applicant might be the son she placed for adoption, this possibility seems to tap into some innate, essential well of motherly imperative. She begins empathizing with the frantic parents of other applicants, trying to hold random babies in stores, and bulldozing her way through the admissions process (without even a nod to professionalism) to ensure that her son will be able to attend Princeton. It looks and feels like an implosion, but the viewer is left to wonder if this is because of a recent breakup in which her boyfriend left her for his pregnant mistress, because of some unnamed and unrealized desire to parent, because of her own fractured relationship with her mother, because of her inability to know her own biological father, or because of watching her new romantic prospect interact with his adopted son. The adoption is addressed directly only occasionally, and often frantically, so we don’t have a clear understanding of what the impact has been on Portia’s life. What is the movie trying to say about adoption? Even after watching, I’m not sure.
What it does do, however, is place adoption in the context of a bigger sense of the unknown. Portia does not know her father, nor does she know her son. These disconnections prevent her from connecting with her mother in any meaningful way. We don’t know if Portia wants to be a mother, and perhaps she doesn’t either. In the end, it was this rootlessness that came across most strongly, and contrasted most sharply with the repeated classification of Portia’s life as stable and boring — but it was also what was glossed over most frequently for the sake of comedic purpose. In the end, the metaphor, whether intended or not (and it probably was), between adoption reunions and the college admissions process is at least partially true: the sense of putting oneself out there, of hanging one’s future on an unknowable verdict rendered by an unknown person, highlights how vulnerable adoption can make people.
Here’s hoping that the next birth mother movie — because goodness knows, it doesn’t seem like we’ll have any shortage of them — will find a way to give more space to this complexity.