- Beth (Rose Byrne) and Adam (Hugh Dancy) take it one step at a time.
Max Mayer's debut feature, Adam, is hard to categorize: Despite what the ad might have you believe, it's not quite a romantic comedy. It's a little funny, but also bittersweet. And while its titular protagonist has a disability, this is no inspirational (or preachy) Disease of the Week movie.
After the death of his father, Adam (Hugh Dancy), a 27-year-old New Yorker, is adjusting to living alone. He continues his highly ordered domestic routine, and is dedicated (perhaps too much) to his job at a toy manufacturer. But when a cheery, chatty young woman named Beth (Rose Byrne) moves into his building, Adam is variously thrilled and terrified.
Adam has Asperger's syndrome, a form of high-functioning autism characterized in his case by an intense interest in astronomy and difficulty deciphering or intuiting social and emotional cues. When Beth makes a joke, he's confused; when she invites him out for a casual get-together with friends, Adam panics and hides.
But Beth likes Adam, who is sweet and obviously lonely, and after learning to negotiate and accommodate his social limitations, the two embark on a relationship. Interacting with Adam is often an exercise in semantics: When Beth asks if Adam could give her a hug, and he responds simply "yes," she rephrases more precisely: "Adam, I'd like you to give me a hug."
Adam's forthrightness and literalness is occasionally startling, but clearly Beth finds aspects of this tendency toward undiluted truth refreshing. She's left behind a betraying boyfriend, and the other man in her life is her overly glib (read: smooth-lying) father (Peter Gallagher).
Mayer, a TV director, also wrote the script, and it does run the standard rom-com obstacle course: the awkward first date, the moment the two "click," meeting the parents and the first big fight, followed by the (literal) chase for reconciliation, in bad weather no less.
And then there's the crux of all romance narratives: the lack of communication (or miscommunication) that must be resolved by the last reel, putting the lovers on the same emotional page. Needless to say, for Adam and Beth, effective dialogue about how each feels about the other is a challenge that may not be surmountable. When the big moment comes, how it plays out may surprise you.
Ultimately, I decided that Adam is closest to a coming-of-age story. Certainly, Adam, left alone after his father's death, must simply learn to manage his own life, even the tricky parts, such as interacting with people and all their confusing traits. Through her association with Adam, meanwhile, the sheltered Beth grows too, though Mayer forces a somewhat extraneous subplot about her adored father's high-profile failings to hammer home that point.
Indeed, my chief criticism of Adam would be Mayer's tendency to have characters speak the obvious, or his occasional gilding of the plot. The film opens with a voiceover from Beth in which she compares Adam to Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's Little Prince. That wise, if alien, child famously imparted lessons, so we know Adam will teach her something heartfelt. (On the other hand, I appreciated the first-reel blink-and-you'll-miss-it peek at the porn Adam stores neatly in his closet, which matter-of-factly establishes his sexuality.)
Despite these few clumsy patches, Adam is a winsome, engaging film, which owes much of its charm to its two leads. Beth isn't as fully developed a character as Adam is -- she is an elementary schoolteacher, preloaded with compassion for the childlike -- but Byrne is warm and fuzzy (literally, in a parade of wooly scarves, hats and complicated sweaters).
Dancy, an up-and-coming British actor who has played the stereotypical dreamy romantic lead (Confessions of a Shopaholic), here manages a substantially trickier role: conveying Adam's emotional desires, even as Adam himself cannot fully recognize or articulate them.
Adam isn't "quirky" in the cute-to-insufferable manner of other indie rom-com heroes; he's fundamentally wired differently, not simply making a lifestyle decision to be adorably offbeat. And ironically to him, it's everybody else -- he calls them "the NTs," or neurotypicals -- whose behavior seems odd.
One night, Adam takes Beth to watch a family of raccoons in Central Park. "They don't really belong here," Adam says, "but here they are." They're adapting to an environment that will always be slightly unfamiliar, and that is ultimately Adam's journey.