College films come in all makes and models; some are crafted for teens preparing to head off on their first jaunt into higher learning, some exist to indulge in the stereotypes and tropes of the college experience, and others still try to bridge that gap between highbrow and lowbrow by meshing frat comedy with coming of age narrative. At Middleton does none of these things. Unlike Animal House, Old School, Van Wilder, and the countless other films that mimic them (and which they mimic themselves), Adam Rodgers’ story isn’t about kids going to college as much as it is about their parents taking them there.
Which is to say that At Middleton is about the fifty-something trauma of having to say goodbye. It’s about more than that, mind, but the act of leaving the nest serves as the catalyst for the entirety of the film’s plot; without it, we simply have no movie. At Middleton begins with a father, George (Andy Garcia), and a mother, Edith (Vera Farmiga), motoring out to the titular school with their respective kids, Conrad (Spencer Lofranco) and Audrey (Taissa Farmiga), for a campus tour. A low-stakes premise, to be certain, but you’d be surprised at how much can go wrong on harmless, exploratory college trek when the adults are almost as restless as their children.
If, at a glance, At Middleton sounds like pitiably middle-road, endlessly maudlin fare made for mopey grown-ups, well, Rodgers has a few surprises for you. At Middleton might be somewhat slight, but it’s also smart, and rather than moroseness it instead runs on an inexhaustible reserve of charm. Rodgers spends much of his time following around George and Edith as they play hooky, breaking off from the tour to snoop around Middleton on their own and conversing over matters ranging from the college itself to their personal dissatisfaction with their separate lives; they’re both married, but (perhaps unsurprisingly) unhappily. It takes a single day surrounded by the young for them to put their malaise into perspective.
Boohoo, the snark contingent may say; nobody cares about the pain felt by America’s discontented bourgeois. But At Middleton is about a lot more than the unease of its leads, even if it’s centrally concerned with documenting George and Edith as they struggle with their lachrymose urges. Rodgers doesn’t cling to any romantic notions of collegiate life, nor does he have much interest in concocting libidinal shenanigans for his cast to engage in, though he’s quite happy to allow hormonal acts to occur on the fringes of his story, using George and Edith as giggling, abashed observers.
He does, however, treat the concept of the campus as a place of self-discovery and reflection. It’s not quite so pretentious as it sounds on paper; what else is college for but fostering opportunities to learn who we are and what we want out of our existences? At Middleton, however, ruminates on these questions by alternating between a stern air of earnest melodrama and a far more lighthearted bent; it cushions its big ideas and emotional peaks with peaks of moving, joyful romance and screwball comedy. Rodgers, Garcia, the sisters Farmiga, and Lofranco aren’t exactly a dour lot, after all, though seeing Terry Benedict clowning around in a boater might provide a mild shock to the system at first.
Garcia, by the way, feels like a revelation here. Not that he hasn’t already established his credentials as an actor over the course of his career, of course, but his name tends to invoke images of tough guys and heavies, the Benedicts, the Vincent Mancinis, the George Stones; here we’re introduced to him as a buttoned-down fuddy duddy whose gradual transformation into an emotionally vulnerable goof (who’s never anything less than manly) is nothing short of magical. Rodgers hints at George’s change in spirit with symbolism that’s all too on the nose, but Garcia’s so wonderful that the sight of his bow tie finally coming undone barely registers. He’s excellent.
No less wonderful is the senior Farmiga sister, who offers a loosened-up foil to Garcia’s tightwad. Her shift in attitude doesn’t pack quite the same punch as his, but that’s mostly because it’s not quite as drastic; we know Edith’s depth of feeling from the moment we meet her. Frankly, Farmiga’s so good that it’s not hard to imagine Garcia being totally lost without her partnership; they’re convincing as strangers, even more convincing as individuals missing something from their relationships, and even more convincing still as two people under the effects of the sort of high that can only come from the dizzying delirium of love at first sight.
Together they wander about the school grounds, causing trouble and unintentionally auditing classes while Conrad and Audrey, bereft of their chaperones, fend for themselves; the film is far less about them than their sires, and though Rodgers doesn’t completely abandon them, he’s much more keen on spending time with the adults than not. That divide allows At Middleton to refreshingly paint George and Edith as imperfect parents, whereas another film might be tempted to argue that they have everything figured out.
But that’s part of Rodgers’ point: nobody really does, and those who do tend to wind up getting the rug pulled out from underneath them in one way or another. Put in short, the film is delightful, a less heady distillation of Richard Linklater’s work, well-crafted, sweet, funny, and with just enough of a bite to keep it from being fluff-work. You may get more mileage out of it if college hangs somewhere in your periphery, but you don’t need to be knee-deep in tuition payments for At Middleton to strike true; to borrow the film’s most cherished word, that would just be feckless.