Whose tongue – tied to their heart – has not struggled when learning the language of love? For romantic love is a unique language that is wonderfully odd, frustratingly unpredictable, and ever evolving. It’s a language with a vast assembly of native and learned speakers yet plagued by obscure markers, conflicting meanings and imprecise translation. Love, as a system of structured communication, is so intensely personal, illogical and complex it’s a wonder anyone is able to express such a depth of feeling at all.
Even the most adept among us struggle to speak with any great confidence or fluency in this most peculiar of languages. Imagine then the additional barriers that exist for individuals with neurological disorders such as autism, which is characterized by restricted and repetitive behavior and by significantly impaired social interaction and communication skills. Such is the premise at the heart of Adam, a quiet, romantic comedy that smartly avoids using the main character’s disability as a source of either cheap laughs or cloying sentimentality.
Adam tells the story of a young man (Hugh Dancy) suffering from Asperger’s syndrome, a high functioning form of autism, as his (necessarily) well-ordered life is disrupted by a series of successive life-changing events. The film begins with Adam attending the funeral of his father, who was clearly both a primary care giver to Adam and a beloved friend.
Such a traumatic event would upset the balance of anyone’s life but the chaos this brings to Adam is more pronounced because of his neurological disability. He only just begins to make his way in this unknown emotional territory when, shortly after the funeral, Beth (Rose Byrne), a young schoolteacher and aspiring children’s book author, moves into his apartment building. Though Beth is initially unaware of Adam’s neurological and social difficulties, the two slowly forge a genuine and honest friendship that develops into a sweet romance.
Max Mayer, the film’s writer and director, handles the romance between Adam and Beth with intelligence and respect. The evolution of their relationship feels natural and unrushed, which lends a welcome sensitivity and authenticity to Adam. Unfortunately, however, this does not translate into an immersive or fully engaging cinematic experience. Mayer treats his subjects with such care that Adam and Beth can, at times, feel overly uninvolved in their own story. The choice to deal with complex neurological and emotional difficulties with such excessive consideration results in the audience feeling removed from the central characters’ struggles.
The clearest example of this is the unique difficulties Adam and Beth face as a couple. Their communication and intimacy issues are only lightly touched upon and never fully explored, which is a shame considering the fertile narrative and emotional territory such a relationship inherently presents. Universally vital and central questions such as: Is it more important to love or to be loved? Can we ever truly know what our partner thinks let alone feels? Is love a literal need, which can be fulfilled through tasks and routines or something less definable and, therefore, an act that can never be satisfied? Does an inability to verbalize emotion, thought, and feeling necessarily translate into a deficiency of such emotional states?
Clearly it’s not the goal nor should it be the obligation of a single movie to answer such heavy, metaphysical questions. The disappointment expressed comes simply from the unrealized potential of Adam. Like its titular character Adam is a sweet film whose greatest strength comes from its understated charm. Dancy’s performance is well measured and considerate and his skill as an actor exceeds the limits of Mayer’s serviceable direction. Not comfortable with only presenting Adam’s disabilities Dancy rounds out his character with natural touches of curiosity, humor, frustration and desire.
Ironically, for a movie whose lead character suffers from a form of autism, it is the inner, emotional world of (the seemingly normal) Beth that remains hidden and mysterious. Rose Byrne is an attractive and engaging young actress but she is left with little to do in Adam. Hampered by a distracting and pointless subplot involving her parents (Peter Gallagher and Amy Irving) Beth’s journey is poorly written and ill defined. It’s not a question of her attraction to Adam (which is both plausible and palpable) that prevents Beth from being more fully realized as a character but, rather, a question of personal interest and motivation in her own narrative.
The extras included on the DVD are fairly standard and add very little to the film’s home market release. Among the offerings are: commentary by director Max Mayer, deleted and extended scenes, an alternative ending and a short question and answer session between lead actress Rose Byrne and film school students.
Adam is a small, charming film whose unassuming manner is simultaneously refreshing and disappointing. It’s overly respectful handling of Adam’s disability prevents the film from being more engaging, bold and interesting.