Adam, directed by Rhys Ernst and written by Ariel Schrag from her novel of the same name, is a new coming-of-age film that has been the subject of controversy due to its questionable treatment of LGBTQ issues. Ultimately, despite the movie’s seemingly good intentions, it comes off as a woefully misinformed explanation of trans issues from a cisgender perspective.
This film’s issues start with its premise and keep going from there. The movie is about a boy in high school, the eponymous protagonist, who spends a summer with his sister in New York City, where he falls in love with a lesbian woman and pretends to be a trans man in order to start a relationship with her. There are so many things wrong with this premise that you can’t help but wonder why anyone thought it was a good idea in the first place.
The most obvious level of scumminess is that the protagonist is totally disrespecting the LGBTQ community by pretending to be someone he is not. Lying about anything is bad, but lying about something like that is just unethical. Trans people have faced discrimination and oppression for ages so that a high school kid can use it to sleep with a lesbian woman to whom he is attracted? That just isn’t how things work.
Why are we as the audience supposed to like or sympathize with a character who is doing something so horrible? If you have any sense of basic human decency, it is hard to not dislike (or even hate) the protagonist because of what he has done. Yes, the second and third acts are about the character coming to terms with the fact that what he is doing is wrong, but he should have known all along that he was acting unethically. By the end of the film, any consequences he faces would never be enough.
However, perhaps more damning is the fact that the movie entirely delegitimize the identities of the LGBTQ community. Since the character pretends to be a trans man to sleep with a lesbian woman, the film is therefore implying that trans men aren’t really men. In what world does a movie that is trying to support LGBTQ rights have this underlying message? It almost feels as if this film is trying to sanitize the real-life issues at its core in a way that is more “palatable” for conservative cis audiences without the realization that those audiences wouldn’t be watching this movie anyway.
The actors all try to give compelling performances, but unfortunately, you will be so distracted by how horribly the characters are written to be able to pay too much attention to the merits of the cast. What can be praised, though, is that director Ernst cast a diverse group of actors, in terms of race, gender identity, and sexual orientation.
On a technical level, the movie was mostly fine, if somewhat unimpressive. The film is set in the mid-2000’s, yet apart from a few quirks in the production design here and there (a movie poster in the background or a character pulling a flip phone from out of his pocket, it looks and feels like it could have been set in any time. Maybe if the movie had been more clearly periodized as being set more than a decade ago, some of its political incorrectness could have been forgiven.
Although Adam has noble intentions and is a step forward for LGBTQ representation both in front of and behind the camera, it simply doesn’t work. This feels like a movie made to be an introduction to trans issues for a transphobic cisgender audience that probably won’t even see it.
Adam opens in theaters on August 14.