I quitely yet instinctually cringe whenever I'm approached by a movie dealing with the mentally challenged. Not that I have anything against the handicapped, of course, but because most films that showcase "retarded" characters do so in a shamelessly maudlin and astonishingly manipulative fashion. (Try sitting through a triple feature of The Other Sister, I Am Sam, and Radio and then drop me an email -- if your brain hasn't oozed out your ear.)
So when I saw that a tiny little indie flick called Admissions focused on an aimless high school girl and her "savant" of a sister -- I approached the movie with some cautious skepticism.
But here's where indie movies can succeed where the studio flicks buckle and bluster: Admissions deals with the issue of the "mentally challenged" in a sweet, honest, and realistic way, and it succeeds due to the understated direction of Melissa Painter, the surprisingly insightful screenplay by Dawn O'Leary (which is based on her own stage play), and a handful of truly excellent acting performances. Plus it's a film that tells its story, asserts its messages, and then gets out the door long before its welcome is worn out. A "big budget" version would have long syrupy strains of treacly music, 4 or 5 "oscar grab" sequences of overacting, and a message that's repeated over and over ad nauseum ... as if we actually need to be told that the mentally challenged "are people too!"
Lauren Ambrose plays Evie, an exceedingly sweet-natured high school senior who, for some strange reason, seems to have her heart set on alienating every single college admissions officer she interviews with. We soon learn that Evie has an "idiot savant" sister named Emily, and that her devotion to her sibling may be precisely the thing that's causing Evie to semi-sabotage her own college career.
Emily, you see, was once a "normal" girl, but suffered a nasty fall when she was a small girl, thereby creating the mental handicaps. But, despite her problems, Emily may just be a truly gifted artist; her poems are simply beautiful. The girls' mother dotes on Emily to an overwhelming degree, and the fact that her "special" daughter may be harboring such an amazing gift ... well, let's just say it fills Mom's guilt-ridden heart with a lot of joy.
But it seems that Evie may be "feeding" her sister the poetry, more than content to let her little sister take the credit for the lovely prose. And when Mom asks a local high school teacher to rate and review Emily's poetry, it leads to a lot of extra attention for Evie's special sis.
Admissions is a calm, quiet, and satsfyingly sweet little drama, one that should prove quite enjoyable to those looking for some sincerity in a sub-genre generally overrun by artifice. Lauren Ambrose gives a wonderful performance here, which should come as no surprise to those of you who remember the gal from projects like Can't Hardly Wait and Six Feet Under. Indie veterans Amy Madigan (as Mom) and John Savage (as Dad) also contribute some rock-solid work, and hey, it's always great to see good ol' Christopher Lloyd pop up in a supporting role. As the charming and childlike teen Emily, Taylor Roberts does a great job with a seriously difficult role.
Clocking in at a concise 84 minutes, Admissions is a mellow and mild little winner. It's not a button-pushing or shamelessly manipulative "Aww, look how special the special people are!" sort of story, and that approach alone is worth its weight in gold. You can tell that this sisters' story comes from a real and sincere place, which is somewhere that the hoary Hollywood "handicappers" know nothing about.
Video: The Widescreen transfer looks quite solid, especially when you consider how low the budget must have been on this particular production.
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, and it's pretty damn excellent -- even if the movie's not the most aurally opverwhelming thing you've ever heard. (It's a "people story"!)
Extras: You'll get a collection of trailers for Admissions, The Hired Hand, Die Mommie Die!, Dopamine, Seeing Other People, Rick, and Wilbur (Wants to Kill Himself).
Released as part of Hart Sharp's "Sundance Series," Admissions is a quiet and smoothly engaging little family drama, and one that should find some love from the few folks who are willing to pick up and take home a simple little story of sisterly devotion.