by Piers Aspie
(Originally published September 9, 2009)
ADAM: Rating: PG-13. CAST: Adam Raki- Hugh Dancy; Beth Buchwald- Rose Byrne; Mary Buchwald- Amy Irving; Marty Buchwald- Peter Gallagher; Harlan- Frankie Faison; Sam Klieber- Mark Linn-Baker; Lyra- Haviland Morris; Mr. Wardlow- Adam LeFevre. Written and Directed by Max Mayer; A Fox Searchlight Pictures Release: July 29, 2009.
Adam moved me as few films have. It's about a twenty-nine-year-old man with Asperger's syndrome—a mild form of autism that affects social and emotional development but not cognitive ability—who lives in New York. I also happen to be a twenty-nine-year-old man with Asperger's, and have an abiding love of New York. Adam's struggles, fears, heartbreaks, joys, and aspirations are my own, expressed as I could not possibly have expressed them.
Not all of the critics share my admiration of this movie. Quite a few of them have called it disingenuous, contrived, and untrue to life, claiming that it goes out of its way to give Adam endearing quirks and a savant-like gift for astronomy. But I beg to differ. Adam's knowledge of astronomy isn't savant-like, it's merely an intense obsession. As for his quirks, nothing about them strains credulity in the least (and if you doubt that it's really humanly possible for anyone to be so weird, then you ought to see a few of my eccentricities). On the contrary, actor Hugh Dancy makes an entirely believable "aspie," uncannily capturing the hesitations, the stare, the monotone voice, the sensitivity to loud noises, and the stiff, symmetrical posturing and overall bearing that are the stock in trade of people with Asperger's. Nor does he come across as merely a caricature of Asperger's mannerisms; he really seems to know Adam's psyche inside and out. He is his own aspie.
The film is filled with nice little touches that testify to how thoroughly Dancy and writer/director Max Mayer have captured the role. One of my favorites is a line of dialogue that Adam mutters while telling a lunch buddy about a young woman he met recently named Beth (Rose Byrne), who goes on to become his love interest. "You gonna' see her again?" his buddy asks. Adam's delightful response, said in signature aspie deadpan drollness, is, "I see her almost every day." It's exactly the kind of dry, deliberately literal remark that aspies are apt to make when trying to duck an uncomfortable question—and Dancy should get an Oscar nod simply for his role in pioneering the aspie one-liner on film.
Adam Raki is a fictitious character that Mayer felt inspired to create several years back, after listening to an NPR interview with a young man who had Asperger's. Mayer, who admits to having been something of a childhood outcast himself, was moved and fascinated by this interview, and so he proceeded to spend the next year or so researching Asperger's and writing the initial outline of a movie script. He was glad when Dancy was cast in the lead role, for he had always felt that Adam should be played by an extroverted actor rather than by an introverted one. He describes Adam as "basically an extroverted person who has gotten a bit beaten down through (the) experience of being inappropriate or finding out that what he's said is inappropriate, or how he's behaved, and that sort of thing...(He) is fundamentally a sort of trusting and gregarious person who is trying to connect in a very real way to other people, but doesn't understand why one would look into somebody else's eyes to get information, because he doesn't get any information that way." Ultimately, Mayer decided to make the film not a portrait of Asperger's syndrome per se, but rather a study of one young man who happens to have it. But he still did want to get the representation right, and so in addition to his initial research, he enlisted the counsel of a New York-based group called Adaptations—which works with young adults who have Asperger's—during the film's shooting.1
Finding the role of Adam was a challenge for Dancy. He had to both educate himself about Asperger's and find a way to impose himself onto Mayer's background material without being generic and losing a sense of Adam as his own individual character. As part of his research, this intelligent, articulate, Oxford-educated actor read books and spent time with real-life aspies, including a number of consultants from Adaptations. One of the most important things that he took away from this experience is just how widely aspies can vary from one another in terms of their behavior, personalities, and sense of humor. And this realization actually turned out to be quite liberating. Dancy recalls, "That freed me up in my job, to realize I could make choices, I could pick and choose, I could even allow my imagination to get into it." And the end result is one of the truly great performances in the aspie film tradition (which admittedly isn't a very long one thus far).2
At the beginning of the film, Adam works as an electronics engineer and lives a quiet life of routine and order in his New York City apartment. Breakfast and dinner are always exactly the same. When not at work, he holes up in his apartment assembling computer chips, gazing at the stars with his telescope, or dusting off his latest volume on theater history (his other Asperger's obsession besides astronomy). He passes the evenings completely consumed by these solitary pursuits. Adam's is a small and isolated world that he made for himself many years ago, after the social world left him bewildered and burned. He finds solace and even bliss there, but also loneliness.
Adam's only friend that we know of is Harlan (the aforementioned lunch buddy, played by the excellent Frankie Faison). Harlan is a sage older mentor whom Adam depends on for help and guidance. And incidentally, this mentor-type friendship is yet another of those small touches that make this movie so true to life. For it's quite common for aspies to form friendships with people who are considerably older than they are, rather than with their peers. It's what I've done for most of my life. The relationship between Adam and Harlan is human, touching, and well-developed; and Faison comes through with a fine, strong supporting performance.
The main thrust of the movie is how Adam's budding romance with Beth Buchwald, a young writer and schoolteacher who has just moved into his apartment building, enables him to blossom and venture beyond this safe intellectual world. Beth, like many a significant other of someone with Asperger's (my own ex included), finds herself assuming the simultaneous roles of teacher, social worker, and coach, in addition to that of girlfriend. It's a tall order—and Byrne does an excellent job of conveying Beth's conflicted nature over whether or not she's up to it. Beth finds herself embarrassed so much of the time, as well as frustrated and angry with Adam. There isn't a single social interaction that she doesn't have to correct. She can't leave Adam alone at a party for more than a minute without him saying something uncouth or monopolizing a conversation with some long-winded speech that no one wants to hear. And when Adam is fired from his job for being too perfectionistic and not seeing the big picture (been there), she also becomes his career counselor, buying books on employment for people with Asperger's and conducting mock job interviews with him.
Adam and Beth first meet as she's moving things into the new apartment, and they bump into each other again a little while later while doing laundry. As a general rule, men with Asperger's find it exceedingly difficult to take chances in the world of romance. (And based on conversations that I've had with women who have Asperger's, I'd say the same could certainly be said of them as well; but it's most applicable to men, since we're the ones who are expected to be the pursuers.) Yet, at Harlan's urging, Adam does bring himself to approach Beth. He takes her up to his apartment to see his planetarium, and she is awed by the fetching view of all those stars, as well as his encyclopedic knowledge of them. For their next outing, he takes her to Central Park one night to see a local raccoon family that he's been watching there for years ("Raccoons in Central Park?" she marvels).
Shortly thereafter, Adam tells Beth about his Asperger's, and that's when she begins to have her reservations. She decides to pay a visit to a co-worker at her school who happens to know something of Asperger's, in order to find out whether or not Adam constitutes "prime relationship material" given his condition. But the co-worker is unable to give her a straight answer. "Well, um, it is on the autism spectrum," is all she can tell Beth, in a querulous, worried tone. But Beth's reservations are outweighed by her enchantment with Adam's intelligence, his pleasant face, and his straightforward, childlike honesty. She's been hurt recently by a jerk-ex who cheated on her, and so Adam's sweetness really appeals to her. (And of course Adam's a sweet guy; what can he do—all men with Asperger's are sweet guys!)
A dramedy at heart, the film does find humor in Adam's Asperger's-related social gaffs (and it must be said that, even in real life, they often are quite funny). But the humor is never overdone, and it's never at Adam's expense, only at the situation. For me, the most hilarious scene was one in which Adam regales Beth's parents (Peter Gallagher and Amy Irving) with a rambling, long-winded speech about the history of the Off-Broadway Cherry Lane Theater, and Beth has to bodily jar him into shutting up. The wide-eyed, tight-lipped look of woe on her face—as if she's just spotted a cockroach on her bed pillow—is simply priceless.
This scene had me in stitches because it reminded me of a time when I started talking about a cartoon from my boyhood during an outing with my first girlfriend and her mother and adult sister. The whole thing went on to become an "incident," and my girlfriend later told me that her mother and sister's reaction had been one of "horror"—which seemed like an awfully strong word to me. "Gosh," I said, "they were really horrified by my bringing up that cartoon?" "No," my girlfriend set me straight, "I'm sure the horror was at the fact that I was dating you."
This humor related to Adam's social blunders adds a welcome sense of comic relief to the film—just as in real life, I've found, laughing about the funny parts of having Asperger's is a great way to keep from thinking about the parts that are simply wretched. Among these wretched parts are all of the countless ways in which one's own mind, with its fevered overactivity and stalwart insistence on order and perfection in absolutely everything, can drive one nearly mad. There's a telling example of this in the film. It's a scene in which Adam has just caught Beth in a tiny, harmless white lie (during their evening at the theater, she had pretended to bump into her parents completely by accident, when in fact she had planned the meeting in advance so that her parents could meet Adam). When Adam finds this out, he flies into a rage, screaming that she's a liar and that he can't trust her anymore, and cursing her family while throwing and breaking things. She explodes back at him, calling him a child—and the relationship is broken off, at least for now.
The reason for Adam's tantrum has to do with his unique perception of the world around him. Because he lacks a framework for understanding the social world, it seems hopelessly chaotic to him, and so he has to create a world of his own that emphasizes order, structure, and predictability above all else. Contradiction, ambiguity, and deception unsettle him on a level that would be hard for most others to understand. Indeed, aspies in general are known, and often ribbed, for their overly logical, analytical approach to life. And when Adam holds other people to this same high standard, it can make for some serious interpersonal conflicts, as witness his dramatic falling-out with Beth.
I can't see myself ever losing it the way that Adam does over an innocuous white lie. But as an aspie, I can certainly understand the impulse behind his reaction. I have flown into equally uncontrollable rages when thinking about petty degradations and grievances from my past, sometimes even ones that happened months or years ago. At such moments, the pain of these past events is as fresh as if they were happening for the first time. At their worst, these unwelcome thoughts are like scythes slicing through every inch of my nervous system, until I can't help but gingerly whisper to myself when I think that no one else can see (whispering things that were said, things that I wish I'd said back, and so on). On one or two occasions, I've even been so tormented as to bellow out some obscenity in public without meaning to, like someone with Tourette's. And I think that the reason I first became stuck on these past events is that they violated the all-important sense of order and perfection by which I live my life. They're examples of things in my life that didn't go exactly the way that I had imagined they should have gone, and it kills me.
One feels like grabbing Adam, shaking him, and saying, Get a grip—it was only one tiny, harmless lie! Similarly, one wants to say to me, Move on—that was just a blip, and it happened years ago! But it doesn't work that way with people like Adam and me. The knowledge that our neuroses are irrational does nothing to lessen their grip on us. If we could stop them, we would—as much for your sake as for ours. Well, at any rate, now you have some insight into just how different it is to experience the world through the brain of a high-functioning autistic.
The only flaw that I can see with Adam is that it doesn't develop its story or characters as fully as it could. For example, the characterization of Beth's parents is almost entirely one-note. Beth's dad, described as "an angles guy" because of the way he's always playing the angles in business and in love, is as duplicitous and unscrupulous as Adam is genuine and ethical. Over the course of the plot, he becomes that scoundrel-you-love-to-hate; and he's also, conveniently, the one parent who is dead-set against Adam and Beth being together. Beth's mom, on the other hand, is a saint of a woman, equally understanding of both her husband's transgressions and the difficulties that Adam poses as a life partner for Beth. She insists on standing by her own man, and encourages Beth to be more patient with Adam. This all seemed a little too contrived for me. Peter Gallagher and Amy Irving are both easily good enough actors that they could have done well with far more multidimensional roles.
And while Adam certainly is well-developed and believable, there are still some notable omissions in terms of his character development. For instance, the film doesn't supply any back-story as to how Adam came to grips with having Asperger's, or at what point in his life he first learned of it. As a result, we never learn about the kinds of difficulties that he faced as a boy growing up with the condition—lagging far behind his peers in both social and emotional development, and undoubtedly cast out because of it. Instead, all we know of Adam's struggles with Asperger's are what he faces in the here and now. I would have liked a couple of flashback sequences (the film has no flashbacks at all) that delved a bit into his past.
In addition to knowing nothing of Adam's past, we also know nothing of how he experiences his sexual feelings. This is odd, given that the subject of Asperger's and sexuality is in the air throughout the movie—it's on the tip of Adam's tongue, so to speak. Indeed, Dancy's favorite scene, shown in all of the previews, is one in which Adam tries to get closer to Beth by asking her, "Were you excited, sexually, when we were in the Park?,"3 and the attempt at closeness goes embarrassingly amiss. But gems like this are never followed up in earnest. It may be that Mayer was fearful of violating some perceived taboo against portraying people with disabilities as sexual beings. This is legitimate, but also absurd. How can one possibly paint a complete portrait of a young man with Asperger's without delving into his sexuality? It's a vital issue, if only because of what an overwhelming sensory and emotional experience sex is for someone who is, by nature, hypersensitive to external stimuli and unaccustomed to expressing emotion. Is Beth the first woman that Adam has ever been with (surely this detail is crucial to understanding how he processes their first time together)? Is physical intimacy what Adam needs in order to work up enough emotion to have romantic feelings for another person? Does he think that he's hurting Beth when she screams? Aspie sexuality has been the subject of entire books; and Mayer, I think, could have easily tried to answer some of the above questions in Adam without compromising the film's PG-13 rating or offending audiences' sensibilities.
In interviews with Mayer and the cast of Adam, one thing that has been stressed repeatedly is the wide variety of ways in which Asperger's can present itself in real-life people. And indeed, I can see some notable differences between Adam's Asperger's symptoms and my own, even though I believe that we're touched equally by the condition. For example, while I consider myself to be far more socially aware and emotionally in-touch than Adam is, I can see that I'm also more overtly autistic than he is (as unpalatable as that term is) in terms of my thought patterns, some of my body language, and various ritualistic behaviors. These symptoms aren't always noticeable to people who have just met me, but I'm sure that they are to people who have spent enough time around me. And as far as sexuality, I daresay that I've done a more…uh…"thorough" job of learning my way around than Adam has, and I feel good about the fact that this is one of the ways in which I'm not at all your typical aspie. But I doubt that Adam has to spend much time worrying about repelling lovers with sudden, writhing paroxysms of muttering and whispering, the way that I do.
If Adam has a moral, it's that society at large may one day come to fully appreciate and value the aspies in its midst, in spite of how differently we experience the world. After all (and I know I'm hardly the first to say this), every one of us has at least a tinge of Asperger's, even if we're not all full-blown aspie. Who hasn't been obsessed with a single topic from time to time, suffered from social anxiety, had trouble letting go of a grudge, or even talked or mumbled to oneself? Moreover, as Adam informs Beth in one scene, aspies have represented some of the most brilliant and influential minds in the history of Western civilization, including (most probably) Albert Einstein, Thomas Jefferson, and Mozart. After getting to know Adam, Beth's perceptions about Asperger's have changed for good—but so have Adam's. For both my own sake and the sake of my friends who are on the autism spectrum, I ardently hope that the characters' changes in perspective will soon be mirrored by changes in the real world as awareness about Asperger's increases more and more.
My closing remarks are addressed directly to Adam, for I feel that there exists a certain star-crossed brotherhood between the two of us. Adam, I feel like you and I grew up together, we're so much the same. So consider this essay a letter of appreciation for this glimpse into your world, a snapshot of what it means for one person in the world with Asperger's to be alive and human. Even though we could never actually meet in person, I'm with you in spirit, wherever you are.
1. "The Warren Report: Hugh Dancy & Max Mayer - Adam," Metacafe (accessed Aug. 22, 2009); Jack Giroux, "Director Max Mayer on 'Adam'," The Film Stage, July 31, 2009, (accessed Aug. 27, 2009); "Director Max Mayer On 'Adam' And Asperger's," Fresh Air from WHYY, NPR, Aug. 10, 2009; Kristin McCracken, "Love Connection: Adam," Tribeca Film, July 28, 2009, (accessed Aug. 27, 2009).
2. Ibid.; Gaynor Flynn, "Hugh Dancy: Not just another heart-throb Hugh," The Independent, Aug. 7, 2009; McCracken, "Love Connection," Tribeca Film.
3. "Adam–Hugh Dancy's Favorite Scene," The Internet Movie Database (accessed Aug. 25, 2009).
Piers Aspie is a pseudonym for a Seattle-based writer who desires anonymity because of his Asperger's diagnosis. He can be reached at the Seattle Square Pegs Social Club.