Friday, March 29, 2013

Adoption Movie Guide: Admission

Portia Nathan is an admissions officer at Princeton University.  Clarence, the Dean of Admissions, is intending to step down, and Portia is competing with Corinne for his position. Portia is invited by her old college classmate, John Pressman, to visit a new, innovative school of which he is the founder. Although she initially dismisses the idea, she later accepts the invitation in an effort to appear innovative. After all, she wants Clarence’s job. John soon reveals one of his reasons for inviting her – he knows that she placed a child for adoption, and believes that one of his students is her son.  Portia initially dismisses this, but begins thinking about it. When her boyfriend leaves her, she begins thinking more about Jeremiah, who may be her son. She becomes increasingly invested in Jeremiah’s success, breaks rules to get him accepted into Princeton, and then learns that he is not her son, after all. She visits an adoption agency and requests to be put in contact with her actual son; the agency takes her information, and eventually sends her a letter saying that her son is not yet ready to meet her. As the film ends, Portia accepts that her situation isn’t all bad.

How is This Relevant to Adoption? 
Adoption touches many lives in this film. Portia placed her son for adoption. She comes to believe that Jeremiah is her son, and has awkward interactions with him and his adoptive parents. When she does directly tell Jeremiah that she is his mother, he explains that she is not – he has already found his birthmother, but hadn’t told his adoptive parents because he didn’t want to hurt them. Portia tries unsuccessfully to establish contact with her son. John Pressman travels the world doing good; he has adopted Nelson from Uganda, explaining that Nelson’s mother and uncle died, and Nelson needed a family.
Strong Points
John introduces Nelson as “my son.” He leaves it to sixth-grade Nelson to explain, “I’m adopted. I was born in Uganda.” John respects Nelson’s story here, but also has helped Nelson cultivate an acceptance and comfort with his own story. John also describes his adoption of Nelson as “the best thing I’ve ever done.” He graphically demonstrates that he cares about Nelson more than he cares about his accomplishments.

John has been expecting Nelson to travel the world doing good. Nelson is able to express that he wants geographical stability. Although Nelson briefly runs away to make his point, John gets it. He apologizes to Nelson, and backs out of a planned move to Ecuador in order to provide Nelson with the stability he craves.


One character asks Portia, “you never wanted kids?” This is a powerful and painful question to people who’ve struggled with infertility, and is also quite painful to Portia. Her response is a quiet, sarcastic, “I love that question.”

Portia’s discomfort with John’s discussion of adoption makes a lot of sense once we know Portia’s backstory. Some viewers will certainly relate.

John is presented as a world-travelling do-gooder. It’s possible to interpret his adoption of Nelson as yet another charitable deed. This interpretation runs the risk of Nelson feeling indebted to John, but John doesn’t seem likely to encourage that.  John acknowledges that his friends thought he’d bail on Nelson, but John ignored their concerns. His friends seem to have been wrong.
Portia discloses that she hid her pregnancy from her mother.

Portia’s mother acknowledges that she conceived Portia with a stranger, by mistake. Portia is upset that she can never know who her father is. Her mother, typically a tough woman, tearfully apologizes for lying to Portia.

Jeremiah learned that he was adopted during grade school. He believes that he was “supposed to be the son my parents tried to have on their own.” He has struggled with questions of identity, and devotes himself to reading biographies of other people in hopes of finding out who he is. In his quest to understand himself, he also seeks out his birthmother. Much of his search has happened in secret; he explains that he didn’t want to hurt his adoptive parents. Many adoptees will relate to Jeremiah’s fear of hurting others’ feelings.

Nelson asks Portia, “Are you gonna be my mom?” and then quickly adds, “Just messing with you.”

After reaching out through an adoption agency to contact her son, Portia receives word that he is not “yet” ready to meet her. John likens this to being on a “wait list,” and Portia declares that everything is “OK.” While it’s optimal for Portia to be at peace with her life, her arrival at peace may be a little unrealistically rapid.

Weak Points

John seems to have treated Portia and Jeremiah like a “project.” He drew conclusions from information that wasn’t intended for him, manipulated Portia into meeting Jeremiah, blurted out his belief that Jeremiah is her son, and pressured her into disclosing her identity to Jeremiah. Whether or not John was wrong about Portia’s relationship to Jeremiah (he was wrong), he certainly overstepped his boundaries here, both with regard to Portia, and with regard to Jeremiah (who unbeknownst to John, has already secretly found his birthmother.) John’s meddling costs Portia her job, and causes Jeremiah to lose self-confidence.

The weight of secrecy is palpable in this film. Portia’s mother has lied to hide part of Portia’s pre-history which her mother finds shameful. Portia tried to hide her pregnancy. Jeremiah sought out his birthfamily without telling anyone, in hopes of protecting their feelings. John does all of his meddling without  Jeremiah’s knowledge. Portia desperately tries to convince her admissions department to admit Jeremiah, while hiding her connection to him. Nelson’s open, shameless discussion about adoption stands in stark contrast to basically all the other dealings with adoption in the film, but the film doesn’t make that point.

Portia’s boyfriend of ten years has an affair. He leaves Portia when his mistress becomes pregnant with twins. This could be a troubling scene for children who’ve experienced parents splitting up. Some parents might object to their children seeing John’s relationship with Portia: they share a shower and have sex on a few occasions.


This movie is pretty steeped in adoption.  There are some good aspects; John’s relationship with Nelson seems to be exemplary. Portia ultimately reaches out to her son through agency channels, and reports a sense of peace. But there are also problematic and potentially confusing scenes: Jeremiah wonders if Portia only looked out for him because she thought he was her son. John is a heroic character who meddles inappropriately in Portia’s and Jeremiah’s affairs. John is a caricature, for sure, but you’ve probably met him in real life: an altruistic do-gooder who has no respect for others’ boundaries. You probably know him. Or her.  All told, Admission is an imperfect but interesting and thought-provoking film. I don’t recommend it for families because the issues are so deep and presented in ways that young and teenage viewers might find troubling or confusing. But adults who’ve been touched by adoption and adults who are considering adoption could find this movie to be a doorway into worthwhile thoughts about secrecy, reunification, and the emotions inherent in adoption. All that to say: Recommended for adults.

Questions for Discussion after the movie

Do you have anyone in your life that meddles like John? How could you develop boundaries with that person?

What do you think about Portia’s sense of peace after trying to contact her son? Does it seem realistic?

Which “secrets” in the movie seemed the most damaging? How could the damage be repaired?

Find this review helpful? Think about following Adoption at the Movies on Facebook. You might also like to check out our store, where you can find most of the movies reviewed on this site.

You might also like these other Adoption Movie Guides of films with strongly adoption-related themes


  1. I wanted to see this prior to reading your analysis, but now I'm doubly determined to make a date-night happen (or just wait a bit for the DVD).

    1. Oh Lori, John is an interesting character. I'd be interested to know what you think of him!


Open Adoption Blogs