'Adam': Film Review | Sundance 2019

Courtesy Meridian Entertainment Adam LLC/Sundance Institute
Androgyny creates shady opportunity in a queer Garden of Eden.

Boy meets girl and gets his perspective on gender and sexual identity expanded in first-time feature director Rhys Ernst's film of Ariel Schrag's satirical YA novel.

Classic comedy of errors ingredients like mistaken identity, gender reversal and an unintended deception that takes on a life of its own get dropped into an early-2000s Brooklyn queer hipster community in Adam. Directed by Transparent producer Rhys Ernst and adapted by Ariel Schrag from her provocative YA novel, the film flirts knowingly with cultural insensitivity by focusing on a straight male teenager using gender subterfuge to make romantic progress with a Titian-haired lesbian goddess. But he's called out on his creepy cluelessness just in time. It also helps that he's played by Nicholas Alexander in a performance of such disarming innocence that it's easy to cut him some slack.

High school student Adam is introduced striking out, clearly not for the first time, with a girl at a party, while his more confident and overtly masculine buddy Brad (Colton Ryan) has no trouble on that front. When Brad makes plans with his new girlfriend and bails on accompanying Adam to his family's lake house, he needs a quick solution to avoid being stuck with his parents (Ana Gasteyer, Scott Zimmerman) all summer. He arranges to go stay in New York with his cool older sister Casey (Margaret Qualley), who continues to let their folks believe she has a fictitious boyfriend while blazing a romantic trail through half the available young lesbians in Brooklyn.

Set, like the novel, in 2006, just as the trans subculture was finding its political voice, the film draws laughs from its now-distant pop-cultural references, nowhere more so than when Adam tags along with Casey and June (Chloe Levine), the mopey roommate carrying a torch for her, to an L Word viewing party. (Schrag was a writer on season three of the Showtime series.) Adam is somewhat confused by the fact that Casey is now dating a trans man, dubbed Boy Casey (Maxton Miles Baeza), but he does his best to be cool with the situation and not ask awkward questions. Though he's out of his depth with Casey and her queer posse of early-20s friends, Adam feels more at ease with his sister's other roommate Ethan (Leo Sheng), a quiet dude who works at Film Forum.

The first time Adam is mistaken for a transgender man at a lesbian bar, he stammers out an excuse and extricates himself from a bathroom makeout session as soon as he realizes what's up. But at a marriage equality rally the next day he's hypnotized by the ethereally beautiful Gillian (Bobbi Salvor Menuez). When she makes the same misassumption about his gender identity at a post-march party, Adam is too tongue-tied to correct her — or maybe the self-conscious teenager realizes that's the only way he'd ever have a shot with her.

Ernst and Schrag (which is not an accounting firm) don't shy away from the uncomfortable elements of the story that might alienate some LGBTQ audiences, notably when Adam gives himself a crash course in trans experience so he can maintain the ruse. And his sex scenes with Gillian are both frank and sufficiently playful to prolong the belief that she might not have caught on. Gillian is something of a folk hero in the queer community after making waves at her small-town Oklahoma prom; she's genuine and unpretentious in Menuez's lovely performance, and she finds Adam's weirdness refreshingly uncontrived.

But there's of course only one way Adam's deception can end, especially as it keeps escalating. The sudden arrival of Brad and his inappropriate comments isn't enough to expose him, nor is the potentially disastrous decision to accompany the group to Camp Trans, where he becomes the silent minority in an environment that's all about inclusion. (Breakout Pose star Mj Rodriguez makes a brief appearance.) Ultimately, it's Adam's own conscience that makes him come clean, getting an unexpected response from Gillian, for whom the experience has sparked her own questions. His revelation also creates friction with Ethan, who has good reason to take Adam's opportunistic disrespect for marginalized identities personally.

While the filmmakers have been careful to sidestep the controversy with which the book was met in some LGBTQ circles, they treat their blundering central character with affectionate generosity. The crucial fact is that he falls into the spiral of dishonesty as a lonely virgin, not a predator. And if his actions once the lie is out there become ethically dubious, there's no doubt at the end that his horizons have widened along with his understanding of the spectrum of sexual identity. He's chastened, but the movie is more about his education than his vilification or humiliation.

The character of Casey gets somewhat shortchanged, serving as a gateway for Adam and then getting stuck on the narrative sidelines, which is a waste of the terrific Qualley (The Leftovers). But Sheng has strong moments as Ethan, who's more emotionally complicated than he initially seems, and even sad-sack June gets a tender scene in which she demonstrates her capacity for kindness without judgment.

Those latter qualities are chief among the strengths of this sweetly subversive movie, which represents a step forward in representation simply via the fact that it's directed by a trans filmmaker and features trans actors in the appropriate roles. The pacing slackens a bit in the midsection as Adam shuffles between immersive art happenings, sex parties and karaoke bars in scenes that don't always have as much bite or humor as they could. But the cast is appealing; the visuals are crisp and colorful, with a textured feel for the Brooklyn milieu; and the blasts of Jay Wadley's post-punk score along with synth tracks by trans musician Beverly Glenn-Copland provide welcome off-kilter energy.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Next)
Cast: Nicholas Alexander, Bobbi Salvor Menuez, Leo Sheng, Chloe Levine, Margaret Qualley, Colton Ryan, Dana Aliya Levinson, Maxton Miles Baeza, Ana Gasteyer, Mj Rodriguez

Production companies: Meridian Entertainment, Symbolic Exchange, Little Punk
Director: Rhys Ernst
Screenwriter: Ariel Schrag, based on her novel
Producers: Howard Gertler, James Schamus
Executive producers: Jennifer Wenjie Dong, Figo Li, Charlie Dibe, Avy Eschenasy, Joe Pirro
Director of photography: Shawn Peters
Production designer: Nora Mendis
Costume designer: Olga Mill
Music: Jay Wadley
Editor: Joe Murphy
Casting: Allison Estrin, Henry Russell Bergstein
Sales: Symbolic Exchange

95 minutes