Taking a sideways approach to transgender issues that might attract a more diverse (and younger) audience than many film treatments of that theme, “Adam” amusingly channels those issues through an update of the Shakespearean mistaken-identity hook plus familiar “losin’ it” teen sex comedics.
Graphic novelist and “L Word” contributor writer Ariel Shrag’s original 2014 book was deemed offensive by some in the trans community for its premise of an underage straight boy dating a lesbian who thinks he’s trans male. But her adaptation and “Transparent” series producer Rhys Ernst’s feature directing debut make that concept seem comically innocent, much like their protagonist. “Adam” isn’t really about trans or even gay people — though there are plenty on-screen — so much as an open-minded but clueless teen getting a crash course in complex new gender-identity rules that are way over his head.
Though too insider-hip (and sometimes sexually graphic) a movie for more conservative viewers, this ingratiating and nuanced tale has plenty to offer those accepting of but not particularly knowledgeable about trans culture. Producer James Schamus’ involvement could give it additional momentum in connecting with both straight and queer art-house viewers.
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NoCal high schooler Adam (Nicholas Alexander) is an average teenager with just a slightly-above-average degree of social awkwardness, which means he’s still very much a virgin. Hoping to avoid a summer alone with his helicopter parents, he proposes visiting older sister Casey (Margaret Qualley), who seems to be dating her way through NYC’s entire lesbian world. They approve (albeit while believing Casey has a boyfriend), so he moves into her sublet shared with fellow college students Ethan (Leo Sheng) and June (Chloe Levine).
The learning curve required of his diving into Casey’s circle is almost brutally steep, with little slack granted his youth and inexperience in grasping (let alone understanding) all the politically correct terminology in a scene where gender identity is fluid and complex but uncool to “explain.” While it seems there’s little hope for his finding a girlfriend in this crowd, he does meet Gillian (Bobbi Salvor Menuez), who looks like a redheaded young Meryl Streep and is bemusedly attracted by his shyness.
Unfortunately, due to the circumstances in which they meet, she assumes he’s a trans male. Once they’ve clicked, he tries to correct her mistake. But her saying things like “I think you, being yourself, is really brave” makes that difficult, until he’s actually studying YouTube videos and such to play this unasked-for “role” more convincingly.
Naturally this ruse proves difficult to maintain, particularly as he’s too embarrassed to confess it to Casey — whose rather chaotic love life frequently overlaps with Gillian’s circle of friends — or June, whose own emotions are tied up in unrequited love for his sister. Nor can he bring himself to tell Ethan, a helpful straight-male confidant with his own well-hidden identity issues.
“Adam” has a pleasingly goofy, sweet, modest tenor amplified by Jay Wadley’s dweeby lo-fi alt-rock score. Ernst doesn’t go for any big stylistic gestures (apart from a first-date scene amid a spacey art installation), keeping the film grounded in a sort of subtly refined mumblecore aesthetic apt for characters who inhabit a sexual-politics frontier on one hand, but on the other also seem barely aware there’s a lot more to Manhattan than their incestuous little niche. There are some sexual expressions that are mostly played for comedy but are still outré and explicit enough to surprise us almost as much as they do Adam, whose naif POV dominates.
Set a bit mysteriously in 2006 rather than the present, the film loses a little glow when its narrative strands grow more serious. In part that’s because the stakes don’t really seem high: While Adam may think he’s feeling “true love” with (not-much) “older woman” Gillian, we see it for what it is, a first serious crush. Schrag and Ernst provide a satisfying amount of resolution for all the characters, without tying everything into a bow. And they cleverly end the film with a good offhand joke that underlines how Adam is still just a teenager with a lot to learn on every front.
Alexander is a find, making his hero’s haplessness funny without inching toward caricature. Other casting is spot-on, including spirited turns by numerous trans performers, many of whom lay it all out in a skinny-dipping scene toward the close.
Brisk and astutely assembled, “Adam” makes something educational and playful rather than insulting out of that character’s brief walk in another gender construct’s shoes. It never forgets that he’s lucky to have this illicit guest pass — though his sister (who has a thing for both butch lesbians and trans men) raises a credible objection when she complains, “You’re appropriating my entire life!”