Opening Friday, Aug. 30

As a portrayal of queer romance, Adam, the polarizing directorial debut of Rhys Ernst, is both charming and deeply uncomfortable.

The film follows the titular straight male protagonist (Nicholas Alexander) as he spends a summer in New York City living with his sister, a college student heavily involved in the city’s queer alternative underground. Through her circle of friends, most of whom seem to identify as lesbian or trans-masculine, Adam meets Gillian (Bobbi Salvör Menuez), a lesbian who likes his shy demeanor. They become involved in a romantic and sexual relationship, but under a false assumption by Gillian that Adam is a transgender man, due to his somewhat androgynous features.

Instead of correcting the situation, Adam plays along, literally appropriating transgender identity in order to pursue his relationship with Gillian. As you might imagine, this premise is generating significant debate in the LGBTQ community (the film has four stars from Rotten Tomatoes critics and one star from hundreds of IMDB users), to the point that Ernst has started addressing the controversy in outlets from The Advocate to The Economist.

Adam is set in 2006, and some of its more squeamish moments make sense for a time period that was very different for many LGBTQ folks than 2019. But its premise is still unsettling; it’s both jarring and comedic to watch Adam try to grasp and perform elements of trans personhood that hold life-and-death consequences for people who navigate the world as trans, nonbinary, or gender-nonconforming. There is a particularly cringe-worthy scene where he fumbles through using a strap-on to have sex with Gillian.

But that discomfort is certainly intentional on the part of the director, a former Transparent producer who grew up in Chapel Hill. Adam is most successful when Ernst tries to facilitate nuanced conversations that will feel familiar to those who navigate queer spaces and communities today: Does a trans person need to “out” themselves to every sexual partner? How do we stop the media from misgendering and dead-naming trans folks when they’re murdered?

The film feels a bit forced when trying to portray more dated conversations, like whether the fight for same-sex marriage was an assimilationist political tactic, but it deserves recognition for bringing difficult, complex conversations in the LGBTQ community to the big screen in a way that straight people will likely find non-alienating and insightful. It leaves the viewer wanting more accountability for a deeply disturbing set of choices on Adam’s part—and, as is later revealed, on Gillian’s. But overall, Ernst’s film is timely and vital, as storytellers wrestle with how to portray the layers of nuance in trans experience through an accessible lens.

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