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07/29/2009 4:00 AM |

Adam
Directed by Max Mayer

Adam’s standout scene, perfectly demonstrating the epic disconnect between its two central characters, is entirely non-verbal. Beth (Rose Byrne), having just discovered unfortunate news about her father, is clearly in need of comfort from her boyfriend. But Adam (Hugh Dancy) remains alarmingly opaque. She hugs herself as if to instruct him, but he merely pantomimes her gesture. In desperation, she places his hands on hers. He does not react. Finally, Beth breaks down crying.

That Adam is stricken with Asperger syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism, is almost an afterthought. For Adam, the superb directorial debut of Max Mayer, is far more of a tragedy about miscommunication — albeit with several wry laughs — than it is another sweet-natured portrait of a lovable, afflicted loner.
While Dancy deftly embodies Adam’s various inabilities — to self-edit in conversation, to grasp boredom or sarcasm in others, for instance — he never manipulates the audience into pitying him, or finding these traits cute. We feel for Adam’s limitations, but we also see, through Byrne’s stunningly convincing performance, how frustrating they would be even for immensely patient schoolteachers like her. When she snaps at Dancy, you feel his hurt, but Byrne never seems unreasonable.

The film mostly traces Byrne’s point of view of the relationship — first she’s bewildered at Adam’s aloofness, then she falls for his unusual excitement with what most people dismiss as minutiae — and it’s heartbreaking to watch her attempts to integrate him socially, to teach him how to ingratiate himself, consistently fall flat. But not once does Byrne’s overriding tenderness for Adam’s ¬†child-like nature seem improbable.

Mayer occasionally missteps: Adam’s tantrum scenes sometimes resort to Rain Man-like histrionics; the annoying twee pop soundtrack — by now a Fox Searchlight “small film” staple — is used once too often to evoke substance; and a few of Adam’s self-analyses (“I’m not Forrest Gump, you know”) seem forced. But he deserves merit for not only tackling but intertwining two of the most trite film subjects — disability and romance — and for drawing out two amazingly multifaceted performances in the process.

Opens July 29