Monday, August 24, 2009

Thoughts on the film Adam

I want to share some thoughts on my experience of seeing Adam, the new film about a young man with Asperger's who enters into a romantic relationship with a neuro-typical woman.

Spoiler alert: If you're planning on seeing the film and don't want to know too many plot points going in, I suggest you skip this post until after you've seen it.

I was trying to imagine how someone might react to the movie if they were just out to see a romance and didn't have someone in their life with the same condition as the main character. And I found it difficult to parse my reactions to the film as a movie-goer versus my reaction as the parent of a child with Asperger's.

Even though I couldn't connect much of my own goofy, often over-enthusiastic child to Hugh Dancy's rather mannered and serious Adam, I was really quite moved by the film and especially by Dancy's performance.

He seemed to bring out his character's intelligence and tenderness rather than simply focusing on the quirks or anxiety or odd behavior.

But just stepping back and looking at the structure of the story, the fact that Adam had Asperger's was not necessarily essential to the basic plot outline.

An unlikely romance between people who experience the world in very different ways is well-tread ground in movies.

Adam could have been a foreigner or refugee, from an entirely different culture, speaking a different language, struggling to understand and be understood. Or how about an Iraq war veteran with severe PTSD that forces him to develop odd rituals and coping behaviors to avoid flashbacks or panic attacks?

It still works.

The point is that Adam's behavior makes perfect sense to him, while it appears confusing or off-putting to others. Asperger's is one of several traits you could give someone in a movie to drive aspects of a plot.

And maybe in the future, we won't need to have "Asperger's movies" but instead we'll have characters in whom we recognize aspects of the spectrum, because they are necessary for the character and storyline.

(I think my favorite "spectrum moment" in any movie is actually in Diner, when Daniel Stern chews out Ellen Barkin for filing his record albums incorrectly.)

Hugh Dancy gives a great performance under pressure to play a person with Asperger's as if there's one type of person with Asperger's.

I'm not qualified to judge if his performance represented AS accurately to adults who actually live with it, but at least one blog post I've read - Sandy at AspieTeacher - says he got it right without being condescending.

And in general, it holds up pretty well as a genial bittersweet romance, and thank goodness no one cast some actress like Kate Hudson or Katherine Heigl as the love interest.

But my attempt at movie criticism doesn't go much farther than that because I was mostly watching Adam with my parent hat on.

As I watched Adam face a number of difficult hardships - his mother and father are dead, he loses his job, he struggles in a romantic relationship - I could not help imaging my own son as an adult someday and shuddering at the thought of him having to cope with such adversities.

And along the way, I found myself wanting to leap through the screen and shelter Adam the way I run into Ben's room when I hear the rumblings of a meltdown. Seeing his character in a state of emotional turmoil set off my "on alert" mother response.

And what certainly didn't help my critical distance was that Adam's freezer is stocked with the exact same brand of macaroni and cheese that Ben eats exclusively.

(Maybe Amy's Kitchen needs a new tag line: The official Mac and Cheese of Aspies!)

I kept feeling frustrated with his love interest, Beth: how insufficient her support of him was and how limited her understanding of him felt to me.

Of course, she's bound to be confused at first. Sure, this improves as she begins to know Adam, and Asperger's, better. But even after we see her character read Pretending to Be Normal, a well-regarded first person account of AS, she kept committing what I saw as clueless blunders.

My critical faculties non-operational, I wanted to grab her through the screen and say:

"Really? You're going to take him to a noisy restaurant with a club atmosphere on Halloween? That's a terrible idea. Take him to a nice quiet neigborhood restaurant and phone ahead for a booth in the back."

"Don't take him to a party to meet your friends for the first time. Give him a chance to meet them individually, in a less socially-charged environment. Maybe meet at a museum."

But I'm really not being fair. There were several moments in the film, for example, where she thoughtfully and non-judgementally rephrased what she was saying or asking in a way that Adam could understand. And I don't blame her for being afraid after witnessing a full-fledged adult meltdown.

But my tendency is to overlook these moments and focus on what bugged me.

I suppose that my tsk-tsking of Beth represents my desire for people and the world to adapt to Ben rather than asking him to do all the adapting. And I suspect that whatever romantic interests he brings home, I will disapprove of their ability to really understand and appreciate him.

On the other hand, if Beth had somehow become an Asperger's expert and advocate during the course of this film, figured out how to perfectly communicate with and totally accept Adam, despite their differences, living happily ever after, it would have been SO wrong.

It would have made this the kind of film where the person with a disability or difference - The Other - both is saved by and saves the "normal" person.

Thankfully, the film doesn't do this. In the end, Adam and Beth can't be together. But the film doesn't end without hope.

My favorite moment in the film comes at the very end when we see Adam in his dream job, giving tours of an observatory. He's going into a little too much depth about lenses to a high school tour group and manages to gracefully extricate himself from his ramble when he notices he's lost them.

Before the group of students moves on, their teacher thanks Adam and gives him a smile that seems to say: I think I may know what your struggles are, and I think you're doing great.

And this tiny exchange made the entire movie for me. It left me with the feeling that Adam would find out that there are people who don't think of him as spooky or odd, and that adapting means that sometimes people can meet halfway.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It was so nice to meet you at G&R today. I love your blog and am now very interested in seeing "Adam". My email address is
The limited food reference Mac & Cheese I can truly relate to.
Kind regards,
Anna (Gus' mom)
cell 415.305.5606