Can a pretty teacher find lasting romance with a young man suffering from Asperger’s syndrome? That’s the question posed by “Adam,” the second feature by long-time playwright and stage director Max Mayer. It sounds like the stuff of a Hallmark Hall of Fame telefilm, but happily Mayer’s sensitivity and the skill of Hugh Dancy and Rose Byrne in the leads raise it to another level.
If your only knowledge of Asperger’s comes from the character of Jerry played by Christian Clemenson on “Boston Legal,” you’ll undoubtedly be surprised by Dancy’s much more subdued turn as the title character here. Adam Raki, whose protective father has just died, is now alone in their NYC apartment. In his case, the autism-related malady involves an inability to “read” others’ thoughts and respond to them appropriately, and as a result Adam seems peculiarly unemotional and stilted though he’s a savant in math and computer matters. His only friend, now that his father is gone, is cabbie Harlan (Frankie Faison), an old army buddy of his dad’s.
Into Adam’s life comes Beth Buchwald (Rose Byrne), a new teacher at a nearby elementary school and an aspiring writer of children’s books. Their initial encounters as neighbors are strained, but after she learns about his condition, they develop a halting friendship that blossoms into love. It’s complicated, however, when Adam loses his job as a software designer, and Beth’s father Marty (Peter Gallagher), a powerful investment consultant, must face trial on charges of misusing a client’s funds. In the end Beth will have to decide whether to go with Adam to a new job at a remote observatory out west.
Mayer’s script has its share of cute moments—bits involving Adam’s habit of reciting streams of abstruse information in conversation and his observation of a raccoon in Central Park, for instance. But he also hits the mark in the more serious episodes between Adam and Beth, and his direction is sensitive as well. And while the subplot regarding Marty gets rather melodramatic (sparked by a performance from Gallagher that holds nothing back), Amy Irving strikes a properly mournful note as his long-suffering but supportive wife. Faison, too, is an avuncular presence.
But “Adam” is as affecting as it is primarily because of Dancy and Byrne, who bring a touching quality to their characters without allowing them to become cloying. Both do good American accents, but more importantly seem genuine rather than disease-movie-of-the-week caricatures. That’s difficult enough for Byrne, of course, but even more so for Dancy, whose carefully calibrated turn always stays within convincing bounds, even when he has an unexpected outburst.
This is a modest film, but it looks fine, with widescreen cinematography by Seamus Tierney that avoids harshness while not getting too glossy, and it sounds well too, with a score by Christopher Lennertz that refuses to italicize the poignancy.
In the end, however, “Adam” is more endearing than shamelessly manipulative simply because Mayer has done his homework and directs with restraint, and he’s fortunate in his leads. It’s Dancy and Byrne who ultimately make this little picture work.