Adam defies the most miserable of expectations to produce one of the most pleasant surprises of the summer. The setup is a romantic dramedy featuring a young man with a debilitating mental condition, the prospect of which should send most movie fans screaming for the exits. Images arise of a mutant amalgamation of Forrest Gump and When Harry Met Sally, born from the depths of high-concept hell and inflicted upon an unsuspecting public like bubonic plague. And yet the film itself doesn't spring from some studio pitch meeting, but from a single auteur -- writer-director Max Mayer -- who has much more in mind than peddling derivative crap.
The titular character (Hugh Dancy) suffers from Asperger syndrome, a form of autism which makes it very difficult to connect emotionally with other people. Patients often interpret statements literally and have no social filters whatsoever: fairly daunting obstacles when a pretty girl takes a shine to you. Adam has lived all his life in the same Manhattan apartment, watched over by his father and holding down a job as a toy developer that lets his intellectual brilliance shine without any interpersonal contact. When those support mechanisms start to crumble, he finds himself adrift... until Beth (Rose Byrne) moves in downstairs. An elementary school teacher and aspiring writer, she suffers from more mundane issues: her loving but overprotective father (Peter Gallagher) and a string of boyfriends who treat her more like a commodity than a person. Article continues below
Mayer brings out their slow, halting romance with an eye on personality first, seeking the deeper truths behind the quick stereotypes and developing his characters into fully realized human beings. Asperger's isn't the purpose of the exercise -- it's a single aspect of Adam's make-up, prominent and ultimately daunting, but not the sole definition of who he is. Dancy commits to the other parts of the character with equal devotion -- making the Asperger's no more important than his love for astronomy, for example, or his earnest willingness to wash Beth's windows (literally and figuratively).
Adam takes the same care in its handling of Beth, rendering her an equal partner rather than just admiring support. Byrne gets aid from Gallagher and Amy Irving (giving a textbook demonstration on how to make stew out of an oyster) as her mother. In her life, as in Adam's, it would be extremely easy to find the caricatures: to settle back into comfortable stereotyping and let the proceedings unfold like a thousand rom-coms before it. Mayer defies that at every turn, allowing subtlety and nuance to quietly turn expectations on their ears.
The narrative too, takes a number of refreshing twists, patterned after the usual "boy meets girl, boy loses girl" tropes, but devoid of the clichéd sensibilities to which far too many similar films have succumbed. With the central figures so well defined, the story arc can adjust to their natural reactions rather than forcing them to conform to the needs of the plot. Its conclusion differs significantly from what many may expect, but is infused with such optimism and possibility that it puts more conventional happy endings to shame.
Like so many good films, those assets stem from the singular vision of a devoted filmmaker, trusting that his story will find the audience it needs rather than test marketing the life out of it for fear that it won't. Fox Searchlight has a unique nose for such projects, and has reaped well-deserved critical accolades in the process. Adam doesn't quite rank with the best of their stable, but it does prove how far a dedication to quality can go when applied on a broad scale. It aspires to the very highest standards of the romantic genre -- well-oiled with humor but never surrendering its emotional core -- and if its efforts only reach the "pretty damn good" level, that's still far, far more than its dubious premise would suggest. With the bloated carcasses of summer event pictures littering the landscape, a little expertly delivered grown-up material may be just what the doctor ordered.