Movie Review: ‘Submission’

Review by Jacquelin Hipes

Submission has aspirations towards social commentary, with a source novel by Francine Prose that claims to update a classic film about the forbidden romance between a college professor and cabaret singer for a modern audience. It works best, however, when it deals purely in politics of a personal nature. With excellent performances from both leads you don’t always need grand statements. Their relationship—and the way in which manipulations, expectations, and conventions warp it—more than suffices.

Professor Ted Swenson (Stanley Tucci) is comfortably ensconced, yet dissatisfied faculty member at a small private college. Several years ago he wrote a semi-autobiographical novel which won wide-spread acclaim…and hasn’t produced a single thing since. Plagued by chronic writer’s block, he’s receptive to the shy admiration of Angela (Addison Timlin), one of the students in his creative writing class. She claims his book as one of her favorites, gushing over how personal it felt. Displaying all the classic signs of a crush, Angela asks if he would consider reading over the first chapter of her novel-in-progress. Buttered up by flattery, he agrees, shocked when the pages she gave him reflect a talent that far surpasses her peers in the writing group.

What began as a give-and-take of writing and critique develops into a more intimate relationship, spurred by Angela’s escalating presumptions on Swenson’s personal time. Tucci captures the insecurity that accompanies overnight success believably well; although Swenson is perceptive enough to rail against what he sees as a softening of today’s students, he’s blind to the machinations of a complimentary fan. By the time Angela has him behind the locked door of her dorm room, helping to set up a new computer he drove her to pick up, he’s already stumbled across non-negotiable boundaries.

Timlin excels in a difficult and largely enigmatic role. As Angela manipulates both a system and those who function within it, her ultimate motives grow murkier and murkier. Is she seducing her professor? Plagiarizing his life for her own gain? Or is she the victim of an egotistical minor celebrity, relegated to distant memory? She keeps the viewer guessing for most of the film, but she always feels defined, rather floating aimlessly from motive to motive.

Tucci inspires equal measures of sympathy and exasperation; at times, one can’t help but wonder just how clueless a man can be while managing to survive to middle age. He also gets the funniest moment of the film, a rant against trigger warnings and hyper-sensitivity in today’s college students that leaves a dinner party speechless and his wife (Kyra Sedgwick, outstanding in her few scenes) shaking with laughter. It’s one of the rare concessions to the satirical tone alluded to in Submission’s press materials and, while hilarious, it doesn’t necessarily elevate the story to insightful parody.

For satire to really work, it requires bite. Not an occasional wink and nod. Submission may not have the teeth to function as social commentary, but it is an excellent personal drama that questions the status quo of power dynamics with a twisty, satisfying conclusion.

In Theaters on March 2, 2018 in NYC and March 9, 2018 in LA and Additional Markets.

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