Hugh Dancy’s performance is nothing shy of genius.
Adam is a small film about a man with Asperger’s syndrome who is doing his best to live in a world that seems devised to work against him. According to WebMD, "Asperger’s syndrome is a developmental disorder that makes it very hard to interact with other people." This will include strong preference for and adherence to routines and difficulty understanding nonverbal social cues. Adam Raki (Hugh Dancy) struggles so much from day to day because our world caters to people who don’t mean what they say and rely on sarcasm when they are uncomfortable. Adam doesn’t do this and doesn’t understand when other people do.
The polar opposite to Adam is his upstairs neighbor, Beth Buchwald (Rose Byrne). Beth is a teacher and must be capable of talking to all different types of people and adapting to various situations on a daily basis. Beth initiates a casual friendship with Adam because she finds him interesting. Adam obliges Beth because she is willing to listen to his occasionally long-winded diatribes about the wonders of the solar system and the mysteries the universe has to offer. He relies on his superior intellect to make up for his inability to relate to other people.
The film is not about Adam and Beth discovering something about themselves from the other person, though that does happen. It is not about Adam overcoming his disability and succeeding in the world, though the way he changes is both touching and satisfying. Most importantly, it is not about Adam becoming a national celebrity or war hero or making a profound impact on those around him. The film is about what we as people need in order to survive in this world.
Dancy’s performance is nothing shy of genius. His work as Adam is one of the most remarkable in recent memory because of how reserved and unassuming he is throughout the film. This is the performance Sean Penn wanted to give in I Am Sam but was too desperate for attention to be able to deliver. Dancy shows Adam not as a mentally handicapped man or someone struggling with a disability. He plays him as simply a person who, like anyone else, has his own set of challenges working against him. In my opinion, an Academy Award for Dancy should be as obvious a choice this year as it was for Heath Ledger last year.
The most surprising aspect of the film is Byrne as Beth, who begins as simply a quirky schoolteacher but who has the proverbial rug pulled out from beneath her. Beth is not just a supportive female character who is there to aid Adam through the tough and mean world he encounters; she has her own demons to battle and issues to face. At times, Adam is the furthest thing from her mind giving Byrne room to flex her skills as an actor as she is pulled between her lover and her family. Together, Byrne and Dancy make one film’s most fantastic and interesting couples in years.
Writer/director Max Meyer, who has had personal experience with Asperger’s syndrome, did not intend to make a shallow tearjerker, nor did he want to make light of this terrible affliction. What he has done is strike a wonderful balance between levity and seriousness that makes the film that much more impactful. This year has been filled with big-budget movies with little focus on story or character, instead aiming to have the loudest special effects and biggest box office draw. In the midst of this cacophony, Adam soars above the rest as a beautifully introspective film supported by two wonderful performances. | Matthew F. Newlin