Adam comes billed as “a story about two strangers, one a little stranger than the other.” The “other” would be Beth. How strange is she? Well, she’s an only child, a condition she ruthlessly diagnoses as making her an “emotional retard,” self-centered, gullible and unequipped to cope.
In spite of this self-diagnosis, Beth is, Adam points out, a neurotypical — a point that obviously would not warrant mention unless the “one,” the stranger stranger, were not. How strange is he? Adam has Asperger syndrome, which is why he knows all about astrophysics and computer chip design, but doesn’t know that he should offer to help Beth as she struggles to haul groceries up the apartment steps.
Beth (Rose Byrne) is new to the building where Adam (Hugh Dancy) has lived for years. Adam’s father, the key pillar in Adam’s support structure, has died, and Adam is foundering, though you wouldn’t necessarily know it. Adam’s life is a carefully choreographed routine of fixed patterns and prescribed rituals, from the matching outfits hanging in his closet and the rows of macraroni and cheese in his kitchen cabinet to the office job his father helped him get, where he creates computer chips with more care and attention to detail than his boss seems to want. Any change in this iron-clad routine could potentially leave Adam aground on the rocks, helpless to continue.
Writer–director Max Mayer gets a lot right about Asperger syndrome, or AS, from Adam’s verbal literalism and scrupulous honesty to his difficulty gauging emotions in others and assessing what is socially acceptable or not; from his difficulty with eye contact to his driving fascination with a narrow range of topics and cultivation of extensive knowledge and technical vocabulary on those topics. When Adam self-corrects, changing the subject or engaging in small talk, it’s learned and rehearsed behavior, not something that comes naturally.
It’s a learning curve for Beth, too, as she slowly works out for herself how Adam’s brain functions, how to deal with him, and how to help him deal. Perhaps she is also helping herself deal; Beth is still recovering from a disastrous relationship, and her raffish father (Peter Gallagher) is jovially intrusive about his daughter’s personal life while possibly hiding things about his own.
Roger Ebert suggests, rather brilliantly I think, that Beth’s very self-centeredness makes their relationship more plausible, since it might take a man “even less outgoing to inspire her nurturing side.” In a way, Beth’s journey parallels that of many parents with an Aspie child, learning by trial and error what works and what doesn’t. (One of our six kids is an Aspie, and the expression on my face through much of Adam was a rueful smile of recognition.)
Yet Adam is not a child, and Beth’s semi-maternalistic relationship with him somewhat sells Aspies short. Andrew O’Hehir (Salon.com) calls Adam a “Sidney Poitier phase” movie, meaning a sort of public-service message movie in which a member of a previously misunderstood minority becomes a catalyst for personal growth for the story’s “sociotypical” (e.g., white) characters. (As it happens, Adam includes a post-Poitier magic Negro, an old military buddy of Adam’s father who functions as a sort of surrogate father and life coach to Adam. Less innocuously, there’s also a brief public-service message on behalf of same-sex couplehood and adoption, predictably depicting a lesbian couple.)
But a Sidney Poitier movie was also a chance for a member of a previously infantilized minority to be a grown-up onscreen. If Adam must be a “Poitier phase” movie, and it seems it must, why can’t Adam exhibit the insight and developmental maturity of an adult with Asperger’s?
The movie shows Adam’s passion and depth of knowledge for his chosen subject, astrophysics, but we don’t see much capacity for original insights or creative processing of his memorized facts. Aspies aren’t stereotyped savants who are only capable of playing back data like a tape recorder. They internalize, organize, extrapolate, often in unusually insightful and creative ways. They can be capable of applying principles from their spheres of interest to other areas of life, making nearly poetic connections between seemingly unrelated things. Adam allows Beth to be creative (she writes books for children), but seems to think that Adam’s literal-mindedness means he isn’t creative. A more nuanced portrayal here might have helped flesh out Beth’s interest in Adam.
Adam also seems to confuse the characteristic Aspie lack of visible empathy with a lack of active emotional interest in others. Adam seems indifferent to Beth’s initial social overtures, which he well might, thought the anxiety with which he awaits a knock on his door when she has invited him to join her with some friends indicates that he cares about the invitation, at least. But does he care about Beth herself?
He seems to, for much of the film. For awhile the movie contrives to keep their relationship chaste, ostensibly because Beth is still getting over a disastrous previous relationship. They cuddle and give each other backrubs, but it isn’t all that long before Beth rolls over and is ready for more, which is more or less Hollywood shorthand for “They’re in love.”
But what exactly does Adam feel for Beth? When Adam finally gives full weight to that question, for a moment it looks as if Adam might come up with an Asperger equivalent of Tom Cruise’s “You complete me” monologue at the end of Jerry Maguire. But then the movie blinks, or something, and it’s not clear whether Adam loves Beth, or merely needs her like a security blanket.
NTs (neurotypicals) often have no idea how intensely Aspies care, but they care a lot, sometimes obsessively. An NT barely aware of an Aspie in his or her life might be one of the most important people in that Aspie’s emotional universe.
Which is not to say the long-term prospects of a relationship like Adam and Beth’s are necessarily good. For that matter, much the same could be said for most relationships in Hollywood romances and romantic comedies. It’s the nature of such movies to smooth over difficulties and complications.
Adam explores the possibility of a relationship between an Aspie and an NT (Aspies and NTs do get married, Beth defensively tells her father), while making an effort to be take the difficulties and complications seriously. I appreciate that. The filmmakers respect Adam and Beth as characters, and neither one’s interests are sacrificed to the other’s. I don’t mind where the movie winds up, even if I’m not crazy about how it gets there in the end.
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Thank you so very much for reviewing Adam! My therapist had mentioned it during a session, but she couldn’t remember the title, and while I was going to search for more information about it, I was royally distracted by a summer full of personal crises. I was diagnosed with mild AS six years ago, and thus I tend to have an eye open for movies, etc. about people with this condition. It sounds like this is one of the better, if flawed portrayals, but there again, this is a condition that is very difficult for an actor to recreate: it’s very complex, and my mother has said that it makes my behavior and reactions to things around me near to impossible to predict.
The point you made about one of the flaws in the movie, re: showing the emotional maturity of people AS, was well-put. A lot of us are deceptively child-like in our personalities, while others are wise beyond our years. I’ve been told I’m incongruously both.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.