Adam (2009): Sundance Film Fest Feature Starring Hugh Dancy and Rose Byrne

A highlight of the Dramatic Competition at the 2009 Sundance Film Fest, “Adam” relates an emotionally touching love story between a young man with Asperger syndrome and his sensitive and patient girlfriend, well acted by Hugh Dancy and Rose Byrne.


The modestly executed film works on two levels, realistic, as a detailed exploration of a man inflicted with a particular problem, as well as metaphorical, as a chronicle of any relationship that’s unusual and uncertain and the various compromises we make to maintain such bond.  The Asperger syndrome is a developmental disorder whose main symptoms are physical clumsiness, awkward communication, low empathy, and inability to perceive and react to the feelings and thoughts of others.


Fox Searchlight, which acquired the film after its Sundance premiere, will release it in late July as counter-programming to summer’s blockbusters and tent poles.


Residing alone in the apartment he used to share with his deceased father, Adam Raki (Brit Hugh Dancy) lives a highly structured, narrowly defined life, based on routines of eating the same dinner every night at the same time, going to work as an electronic engineer without interruption, and regularly visiting his father’s old friend, Harlan (Frankie Faison), who becomes a surrogate dad.  Sheltered and isolated, he finds it difficult to communicate, let alone be with others. 


Things change when he meets Beth Buchwald (Rose Byrne of TV’s “Damages”), an elementary school teacher and aspiring author of children’s book, who moves into his building.  After some tentative conversations, the two become friends.  Gradually Adam’s desire motivates him to emerge from his shell, and he even manages to use his special social skills, which are both funny and painful, top an advantage.


However, getting over a bad break-up, Beth brings her own set of problems to the plate.  In a series of meetings with her old folks (Peter Gallagher and Amy Irvine), she inquires into the nature of trust in long-enduring relationships.   Drawn to Adam’s gentle and unusually sensitive personality, she spends more and more time with him, learning the things he’s passionate about, like space exploration and nature, and working with him to open up his world to more experiences and opportunities.  Despite differences in backgrounds and personalities, the two share a sense of childlike wonder and creativity, as indicated in the scene in which Adam shows Beth his personal planetarium.  But, the movie asks, is it sufficient for maintaining their love, and how much patience does it take on Beth’s part to wait for Adam to respond, or to stop perceiving him as an alien.


Writer-dircetor Max Mayer, who made his feature debut in 1998 with “Better Living,” shows some humor and a gentle touch in handling his actors in this intimate New York tale.  Thematically, however, the movie is not particularly subtle in indicating Adam’s emotional problems and his lifestyle.  The couple’s first sex scene is rather weak and poorly staged, and the subplot of Beth’s father standing trial for corporate malfeasance is too contrived.  Ocassonally, “Adam” recalls TV movies of the week, or more mainstream Hollywood films, such as “Rainman” and “Awakenings.”


However, multi-nuanced acting from the two leads compensates for the shortcoming sin narrative department and direction. Dance and Byrne show effectively how trapped, guarded, uncertain and ambiguous we could all become in our own minds and bodies while interacting with other people.  Ultimately, “Adam” is a rather upbeat and compelling defense of the imperfect, indicating the importance of openness in starting and maintaining meaningful social bonds.