Saturday, February 11, 2012

Communication is difficult for most couples, some more than others

Written and directed by Max Mayer.

About halfway through Adam, a wonderful and deeply affecting movie about a romance between two young people, I realized something which made me appreciate the movie more.
Adam Raki (Hugh Dancy) has Asperger’s syndrome and struggles to pick up social cues. This results in some awkward conversations with people including the woman (a charming Rose Byrne) who moved into his building and with whom he slowly enters a courtship. For example, Adam sometimes talks for great lengths to people about astronomy who clearly aren’t interested. He doesn’t recognize the look in their eyes indicating a need to switch topics or he doesn’t have the sense to restrain himself to a few sentences on the matter.
What I realized is Adam really isn’t that different from someone without Asperger’s syndrome.  We’ve all been at a cocktail party and spoken to someone who went on and on way too long about a single topic without regard to whether we were interested. We politely nodded and then found a way to exit the conversation.
As a romance, Adam presents one of the most honest and thoughtful portraits of a relationship I’ve seen in years. As a drama, it shows its protagonists at a crossroads and examines the difficult choices people must make. Following the death of his father, Adam finds himself living independently for the first time at the age of 29. After a breakup, Beth Buchwald (Byrne) moves into a new apartment to start a new chapter in her life.
After meeting each other in the laundry room of their apartment building, Beth asks Adam to join her on an outing with her friends. He stays behind. He is too overwhelmed by the prospect to leave his apartment, but when Beth returns he is waiting for her and they have a conversation before saying goodnight. These conversations and experiences between Beth and Adam are what make their relationship so touching and unlike a typical movie romance. Much of the time they are on screen it is only the two of them, without any outside distractions. This allows the audience to witness the relationship’s most personal and endearing moments. Adam and Beth each have a friend to confide in and discuss their relationship with, but there are none of the obnoxious sidekicks so popular in movies who serve only to ask crass questions about how good the sex is or make quips about penis or breast size.  
Sexuality plays a small, but important role in Adam. Once the couple has agreed they are dating, Beth lays down some ground rules while the two are cuddling in bed (fully clothed) together. She tells Adam holding and kissing are OK, but she needs time before she is ready to have sex. He has no problem with this and agrees. She then embraces him tighter. Later in the movie they are giving each other massages (again fully clothed) on the bed. Beth eventually takes Adam’s hand and places it beneath her shirt and onto her breast.
“Do you want sex?” Adam asks.
“I think I do,” Beth replies.
The two embrace each other as the screen fades to black. It is a wise decision for the filmmakers to not include any more of this. With a PG-13 rating, Adam could have included much more here, but by omitting the visuals the movie keeps the focus on what is important about the scene. It’s not about the act of sex here, but the intimacy and trust required by both participants to make the act possible. It’s refreshing to see a relationship in which the sex is discussed as an important step in the relationship rather than simply something to rush into and get out of the way.  Communication for this couple is paramount given Adam’s condition and sometimes Adam’s communication is a little too blunt, but this is something which might be a benefit. Many people might like it if someone simply asked or stated something rather than being secretive about it.
Further praise can be given for the way Adam shows both Beth and Adam struggling to make their own ways in the world. Beth’s father hovers over her and tries to guide her relationship. Adam needs to do things he’s not done on his own before. This parallel allows Adam to transcend being a movie about someone with Asperger’s syndrome and become a movie about two young adults becoming more self-reliant. Adam explores Asperger’s syndrome without being condescending. It is cute without being cutesy, sweet without being smarmy and tugs at the heartstrings without being manipulative. In many movie relationships, couples' interactions often seem contrived or forced, but everything in Adam seemed real to me.
I was sad when Adam ended because I cared so much about the characters and wanted to spend more time with them. I became strongly affected by their story and would have been pleased for the film to be longer, although it does not feel incomplete. This is an almost perfect romance and one I’ll be watching again and again in the future.