Sentimental Education: Powerful Performances From Andy Garcia and Vera Farmiga in At Middleton

College visits, it turns out, aren’t just for kids

Vera Farmiga and Andy Garcia in At Middleton.

Vera Farmiga and Andy Garcia in At Middleton.

This satisfying debut feature by Adam Rodgers, who co-wrote the smart screenplay with Glenn German, is not exactly flawless, but entertaining dialogue and a collection of tightly knit performances—especially a wonderful, unexpectedly funny star turn by Andy Garcia—make At Middleton a nice surprise.  

Set during the annual spring pilgrimage to inspect prospective college campuses for fall admission, this feel-good family movie follows the loosely plotted experiences of a pair of bright but uncertain high school seniors and two of their parents who arrive on the beautiful 100-acre campus of the fictional Middleton College in the Pacific Northwest (played by two universities in Washington State that look like travel brochures). Audrey Miller (Taissa Farmiga) has her heart set on Middleton based on her hero worship of a famous linguistics professor (Tom Skerritt) on the faculty. She is accompanied by her brittle, caustic mother, Edith (played by formidable actress and real-life older sister Vera Farmiga). Arriving at the same time is handsome, skeptical Conrad Hartman (Spencer Lofranco), who sneers at the intimate nature of the homey college (he prefers Princeton) and his father, George, a prominent cardiac surgeon played with surprising button-down Brooks Brothers conservatism by Andy Garcia.

In the meet-cute, when Dr. Hartman backs into Edith’s parking place, the two find themselves thrown together reluctantly on an organized walking tour conducted by a nerdy student guide. When salty Edith finds comedy material in everything and everyone she encounters and George demands his son wear a preppy tie to make an impression, the embarrassed kids drive their fish-out-of-water parents away, and they get lost. George and Edith don’t really like each other, but playing hooky loosens them up enough to share a few laughs while they investigate campus life on their own. Thanks to the rich performances of two first-rate stars, who make every minute count, the movie is mostly smooth sailing, even when it swerves awkwardly toward absurdity.

Edith is a mischievous eccentric, a loose cannon in an otherwise predictable pattern of acceptable social behavior and a bad (but eventually liberating) influence on uptight George. With their two kids out of the way, they filch two student bicycles and take their own serendipitous tour, with campus security in hot pursuit—disrupting the peaceful school library, playing chopsticks in the music building, getting dizzy climbing to the top of the campanile and showing signs of a growing mutual affection. Finally, in the theater department, they crash an improvisational acting class, playing a married couple with different objectives. The results end up in enough private show-and-tell moments to break down George’s reserve until Edith holds him in her arms, the class applauds and George is reduced to tears. It’s a moving scene, and a powerful performance for two inspired actors with imagination and charisma to spare.

Ms. Farmiga is always honest and full of surprises, but she’s in her best role since she tamed George Clooney in Up in the Air. Warm and caring one minute, rude and annoying the next, making everything the butt of an ill-timed joke to cover up years of being trapped in a loveless marriage and an unsatisfying career selling high-end children’s furniture, she’s kooky, sad and three-dimensional. But At Middleton’s most shocking revelation is the endearing comic turn by Andy Garcia—extremely proper and fastidious in his blazer, bow tie and horn-rimmed glasses, his transformation to goofball is a huge joy. He has never been looser, revealing awkward, loopy and moving aspects of himself that he has never shown on film before. It’s a far cry from his signature roles as cops, gangsters and denizens of the Cuban underworld, but he so flawlessly embodies the carriage, stiffness and suppressed sexuality of a programmed square as he falls under the spell of the force of nature that is Edith. When he lets his graying hair down, walking happy like Charlie Chaplin, dancing foolishly and conquering his fear of heights on top of the campus bell tower, he reminded me of Gary Cooper in Ball of Fire. 

Audrey grows up a bit when her dreamboat professor tells her the purpose of college is not to narrow your focus but to broaden your experience. But when George and Edith broaden theirs by visiting a dorm room, smoking dope and jumping stoned into the campus fountain with their clothes on, the movie loses some of its focus and turns both silly and implausible. Still, the stars’ chemistry works, and so does At Middleton. Fortunately, it never takes the Hollywood route to adultery, melodrama, regret or a neatly packaged happy ending. When what began as an ordinary day finally ends, the kids mature, the adults learn it’s never too late to reconnect with their lost youth, and everyone goes away changed—for the better—by the time spent at Middleton.

AT MIDDLETON
WRITTEN BY Glenn German and Adam Rodgers
DIRECTED BY Adam Rodgers
STARRING Andy Garcia, Vera Farmiga and Taissa Farmiga
RUNNING TIME 99 min.
RATING 3/4