starring Nicholas Alexander, Bobbi Salvör Menuez, Leo Sheng, Margaret Qualley
screenplay by Ariel Schrag, based on her novel
directed by Rhys Ernst
by Alice Stoehr The first five minutes of Adam offer a concise sketch of its title character. He's an unsuave 17-year-old from a Bay Area suburb; his parents fret over his social life; and he's spending summer 2006 in a closet at his lesbian sister's Bushwick apartment. Screenwriter Ariel Schrag condenses the first 40 pages of her 2014 novel into this prologue, after which the credits accompany Adam's first cab ride through Brooklyn. A montage of murals and graffiti flashes past. Nicholas Alexander plays Adam, his hair floppy, his expression glazed, as a vessel ready to be kiln-fired and filled. (He looks a little like Ice Storm-era Tobey Maguire.) He's the star of this bildungsroman about a young man's initiation into the LGBT community and the glaring fact of his own cisness.
Since the adaptation forgoes any voiceover and has a largely trans cast, its POV breaks away from this teen boy's contemptuous gaze. Schrag and director Rhys Ernst, who comes from a background of trans-centric TV, are clearly trying to rehabilitate the source material. Their shearing out of the narration and half a dozen subplots makes the oft-clumsy book look like a blueprint for a brisker, punchier screenplay. The film is pretty like a prestige pilot, lit by streetlamps and multicoloured lights, surveying rooms with tracking shots or catching tête-à-têtes in symmetrical framing. Beach Rats coeditor Joe Murphy helps keep the pacing tight and the punchlines tart. In prose, Schrag has a habit of belabouring her own jokes, but as delivered by actress Chloë Levine, a line like "It's a dyke club; it's full of dykes" becomes amusingly blunt. Alexander's the straight man, as it were, at the fore of a strong comic ensemble. Bit players get Baumbach-esque quips like "This is the year my poetry really gets going," or, at karaoke, "No, I'm so sick of 'Torn'; I'm sick of 'Torn'!" Trans actress Dana Aliya Levinson, as Casey's girlfriend Hazel, relishes the sentence "I wanna fuck you while other people watch."
The ruse itself, the pretext for the whole plot, is occasionally funny. A case in point is Adam and Gillian's first sex scene, halfway through the film. "What do you like to do usually?" she asks. "Um, I don't--I don't know," he mumbles back, a reply that parallels some trans people's fumbling around dysphoria. He goes into the bathroom and, standing by a mirror, affixes a purple strap-on over his boxers. This act has a poignant irony to it, like a "Twilight Zone" reversal, more delicate than anything in Schrag's book. What if cis bodies weren't the norm? it posits. What if they were the ones who had to adapt? But that's a fantasy, just as the book's Adam is a horny fantasy devised by an adult woman to josh her peers. The weirdest aspect of this whole weird scenario is the subtlety of Ernst's direction, which strains to fit Adam's impossible dilemma into a real-world context. The falling action is especially embarrassing: Schrag's added several lines to clarify that what Adam did was wrong, so whereas in the book Adam's trans roommate Ethan (played here by Leo Sheng) "just laughed and egged him on for more details," in the film he sputters, "Do you even get how fucked up that is?"
It's as if the filmmakers have some (not unwarranted) reservations about the premise of their own movie. The lack of onscreen genitals, while understandable, is also symptomatic. How do you tell a story so preoccupied with penises--their presence and absence; their meaning and utility--without showing one, cis or trans, in the flesh? To the film's credit, its Cruising-lite depiction of a dim play party does have a "Blowjob Contest" where women furiously fellate their partners' dildos, and near the end some protesters skinny dip in the Michigan wilderness, though their groins are either submerged or turned away from the camera. All large-scale LGBT storytelling runs into an unfair question, one that cis and straight artists can safely ignore. In order to represent your experiences, do you court outrage or concede to good taste? Adam is a nonanswer.