Originally released in 2019, the divisive Adam arrived with baggage in the shape of a controversial source novel and a petition to ‘cancel’ the film due to its treatment of trans issues. As it begins, the titular protagonist is quickly established as an outcast – both from his peers and even at home, as his parents flippantly suggest he is depressed and ‘down in the dumpies’. As a remedy, rather than spending the summer with them, he ventures to New York City to live with his college student older sister, Casey.
After meeting another student, Gillian, at a party Casey has brought Adam to, the film’s central (and contentious) premise emerges. In an interesting reversal of queer film tropes, Adam, a cis boy, is mistaken by Gillian for a trans man. To keep her affection, Adam keeps up the pretence and begins dating her. While obviously being dishonest, it raises questions about identity, attraction, secrecy, and what we owe one another. It’s also clear to see why this has angered so many readers and viewers, since it plays on the dangerous idea that trans people are somehow predatory or deceptive.
Casey’s subplot is amusing on the surface but also highlights these themes of identity. She cycles through various partners – mostly female, while telling her parents at home that she is dating a man – and can’t find fulfilment, using others to fix her unhappiness.
Adam has a visual simplicity and some of the secondary actors’ performances are a little shaky, but there is charm here. Adam, while clearly doing something wrong, is endearing in his loneliness and desire to belong. Yes, the film is treading a careful line between a comedy of errors and harmful betrayal. It does address the immorality of the situation, though, with a serious shift in tone in the film’s second half, signposted by a news report about the murder of a trans woman.
Despite the sensitive territory, Adam doesn’t defend its protagonist and the plot forces him to confront his dishonesty. It also uses humour deftly and is directed by a trans creative who casts diverse talent to represent various identities. It will no doubt be divisive but is engaging and thought-provoking.
Screening as part of the Scottish Queer International Film Festival 2021