“Adam” is a conventional but delicately crafted drama that movingly tests the viability of a relationship between a young man with Asperger syndrome and his patient but uncertain girlfriend. Emotionally potent performances, gently offbeat humor and writer-helmer Max Mayer’s assured touch guide this tender New York love story to a quietly hopeful conclusion, prevailing over some overly familiar situations and slight narrative missteps. Fox Searchlight, which acquired “Adam” after its Sundance premiere, will rely on favorable reviews to drum up enthusiasm for a film that, if marketed right, could appeal to a wide range of adult audiences.
Born-and-bred New Yorker Adam Raki (British thesp Hugh Dancy) has just lost his father. As we learn in short order, he also has Asperger syndrome, a developmental disorder characterized by physical clumsiness, low empathy and an inability to perceive what others are thinking. Indeed, the opening passages contain some rather too obvious signifiers of Adam’s emotional stuntedness: a shot of him staring unfeelingly into his dad’s open grave; a freezer stacked with nothing but macaroni-and-cheese TV dinners; a routine that sends him back and forth between his tidy flat and his job as an electronic engineer.
Pic hits another familiar beat — but hits it effectively — when Adam meets Beth Buchwald (Australian actress Rose Byrne), the attractive brunette who’s just moved into his apartment building. Friendly and engaging by nature, Beth doesn’t quite know what to make of Adam’s initially avoidant nature and awkward communication style. But when she learns of Adam’s condition and sees how he’s drawn to her, almost in spite of himself, she decides to give him a chance.
Directing his first film since 1998’s “Better Living,” Mayer exquisitely balances the seriousness of Adam’s disorder with the humor inherent in his attempts to bond with Beth, although their first and only lovemaking scene — cut short by a discreet pan-and-dissolve — surely reps a missed dramatic (or comic) opportunity. Other moments are perfectly judged, such as when Adam shows Beth his personal planetarium, or when he surprises her with a spontaneous display of affection.
But their relationship is endangered, in more ways than one, when Adam meets Beth’s parents (Peter Gallagher, Amy Irving), who treat Adam kindly but harbor understandable reservations. More seriously, Beth’s accountant father is about to stand trial for some alleged corporate malfeasance, the fallout of which forces Beth to decide once and for all whether Adam is worth holding onto.
The Adam character may bring “Rain Man” to mind with his lack of eye contact and habit of spouting arcane data in lieu of normal conversation (a device Mayer uses throughout to reliable comic effect). But Dancy’s performance is a convincing, soulfully underplayed turn that harmonizes nicely with Byrne’s winsome openness; both thesps divest themselves of their native accents with flawless results. In addition to Gallagher and Irving, Frankie Faison provides stellar support as Adam’s friend and father figure, Harlan.
Tech package is modest but classy. Cinematographer Seamus Tierney applies a warm amber finish to many of the dimly lit interior shots, while the New York exteriors seem hushed and underpopulated in a way that suits the film’s emotional tenor. A few judiciously chosen indie-pop tunes ably complement Christopher Lennertz’s score.