"I can see that you're upset," says the young man to his girlfriend, "but I don't know what to do." Many men can probably relate to this conundrum, but it has special signifance in Adam, an unconventional romance written and directed by Max Mayer. Adam—played marvelously by Hugh Dancy—has Asperger Syndrome, an increasingly common disorder on the autism spectrum, and his adventure in romance is the stuff of an intriguing and often endearing drama.
When Adam's father dies, he finds himself all but alone for the first time. Enter Beth (Rose Byrne of Damages), a new neighbor in Adam’s building who immediately becomes interested in the oddly withdrawn young man. Only later does Beth realize her potential beau has Asperger’s, but as a schoolteacher built for patience and empathy, she decides to see where the relationship will take them. Worrying its way into the fabric of their relationship is a complication involving Beth's father (Peter Gallagher), an accountant whose repeated dismissals of his impending trial on ethics violations take on an increasingly ominous tone.
By accurately representing a person with Asperger’s and dealing with the social challenges that come with the disorder, Adam is something of a breakthrough film on an increasingly relevant topic. It also works pretty well as a romantic drama, thanks to the work of Byrne and Dancy, who nails the physical and verbal manifestations of Asperger’s while capturing the yearning and tentative boldness of Adam. Dancy also seems to temper Mayer's less disciplined impulses: the director lets Gallagher and the welcome but miscast Mark Linn-Baker (as Adam's boss) overplay their every scene, which makes the subtler work by the leads, Amy Irving (as Beth's mother), and Frankie Faison (as Adam's friend and mentor) all the more impressive.
Adam sometimes stumbles with an opaque bit of plot (how, exactly, did the astronomy-loving Adam acquire what appears to be an authentic spacesuit?) or a flourish of melodrama, but more often than not offers a thoughtful perplexity about human relations or the mysteries of the mind and heart. Adam's interest in astronomy includes the understanding that an expanding universe is moving objects away from us all the time, a metaphor for the struggle of a sustained relationship. The difficulty is compounded by Adam's condition, which affords him a genius for scientific and technical detail but a "mind blindness" when it comes to emotional cues.
Mayer wisely depicts Adam's growth in this area—his ability to get out of himself a bit more—in proportion. Arrested by a lack of experience and an understandable fear of independent social gestures, Adam's strides with Beth are genuinely heroic, giving the film a warmth and strong rooting interest. If Adam's sensibility skews more to Hollywood than indie, it remains an admirable dramatic investigation into life with Asperger's and a story with the intelligence not to insult ours.