Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"Ernst invites viewers to engage with a cis character whom many will find easier to relate to and, through this, shows them what the world really looks like the other way round." | Photo: Meridian Entertainment Adam LLC

Few indie films have attracted anything like as much controversy as Adam before they have even been screened. Much of this is understandable: trans people are under siege at present from a hostile government in the US and a hostile media in the UK, and there are aspects of this story which seem, at first glance, to compound misunderstandings and prejudices.

It's based on a book which, written entirely from a cis woman's perspective, managed to make some clumsy and problematic mistakes whilst endeavouring to explore complex subjects. That the same writer returned for the film adaptation did not inspire confidence; nor did reports that extras on the set had experienced transphobia from crew members, and many people were put off by the suggestion that the extras had been lied to about the title for nefarious purposes (it's actually commonplace to use a different working title for numerous reasons). Yet whilst the trans and lesbian communities had every reason to be wary, this film is not what they feared. It's no accident that it was chosen to open this year's Outfest Los Angeles. Filtered back through a trans gaze, the story has taken on a very different character, and the result is something special.

That gaze belongs to director Rhys Ernst, who has given Ariel Schrag's well meaning but ciscentric book a hard shake. There are very few trans directors currently producing features and the impact of Ernst's involvement on the project should not be underestimated. This is a film that puts the viewer in a space where being LGBT is normal, where half the characters are trans (though you might not always realise it) and where, because of this, young cis protagonist Adam (Nicholas Alexander) is confronted with many of the same challenges that trans people face on a routine basis. He doesn't handle them well, but there's no sense here that the film is saying the rules should be different for him and for young trans people in parallel circumstances. Rather, Ernst invites viewers to engage with a cis character whom many will find easier to relate to and, through this, shows them what the world really looks like the other way round.

Alexander is beautifully cast in the lead, giving us a protagonist who never seems malicious or consciously exploitative but who is deeply rubbish. From the opening scene, in which he screws up the simple act of gently touching the leg of a girl who fancies him at a party, we are invited to laugh at him as well as sympathising with him - but he's a teenager, and who didn't experience some degree of rubbishness at that age? He has, at least, sufficient maturity to respect his sister's sexuality and her desire to keep it a secret from their homophobic parents. In the small town where they grew up, she was the outsider; when he goes to spend the summer with her in New York City, he quickly discovers that he is.

At the centre of the story - and the crux of many people's discomfort with the whole affair - is Adam's relationship with Gillian (Bobbi Salvör Menuez) a woman who identifies as a lesbian. More than a decade his senior, she comes on strong in a nightclub and he runs away when he realises she has assumed he's trans, but it's an overwhelming experience for a boy who has never been kissed. When he sees her again he initiates conversation. It's the first small moment of culpability that leads through intending, over and over again, to tell her the truth, to actively lying. But she's not stupid and the situation is, inevitably, more complex than it seems. It's also just one thread in a complicated, interwoven stories which gradually force Adam to confront the reality of what he has done.

The story of a cis youth pretending to be a trans man, seen first through the eyes of a lesbian but then refined by a trans man to make it accessible to audiences right across the gender spectrum, this might seem to be a film so heavy with politics that there's little room for anything else. One can easily imagine it giving Daily Mail commentators heart attacks. What's remarkable about it, however, is how gracefully it handles all this. The in-jokes and reference points are there for the initiated, such as an early scene of a mixed LGBTQ audience watching The L Word's feeble attempt to tell a trans man's story (Schrag used to write for the series, which has cast actual trans actors and promised to be less clueless in the coming reboot) - but if you don't pick up on them, the story works well enough.

There's also plenty of humour, including a running gag about Adam's desperate attempts to avoid watching as various women touch up his sister (a nice response to one of the problematic elements in the book), and it's refreshing to see a group of LGBTQ characters as diverse as this, with very different points of view on key issues. Internalised transphobia and homophobia are teased out whilst Adam gradually comes to understand why other people have a problem with straight, cis men like himself. By the time he reconnects with a high school friend who is the only other straight, cis character to appear in more than one scene, it's evident that a cultural gulf has formed between them. Adam may alienate all his new friends in an attempt to go back to his starting position but it's clear that he'll never be able to live that way again.

The most difficult story element here is undoubtedly the sexual activity that occurs between Adam and Gillian. No attempt is made to pretend that it's not problematic, but the way Ernst approaches it seems very much about inviting cis viewers to reflect on the issues around disclosure faced by trans people in similar situations. This isn't done without an awareness of the difference between co-opting a marginalised identity and trying to 'pass' as part of a majority in order to escape prejudice - in fact. that's part of the point, and an incident towards the end of the film forces Adam to recognise the full horror of what that difference can mean. There's additional complexity in the way the sex, and its impact on Adam, invites the viewer to rethink what we are routinely taught to think sex is about for men, undermining simplistic ideas about cis masculinity.

This is a film that acknowledges the existence of bisexuality and the prejudice against it in parts of the LGBTQ community. The subject is more sensitively handled than in the book, with a reworked ending which should go some way to addressing concerns that it promotes the nonsensical (and potentially dangerous) idea of lesbians being 'converted'. Overall, the film celebrates complexity and fuzzy edges and the importance of being honest with oneself, something viewers will be longing for after an hour and a half of increasing tension as it becomes more and more obvious that Adam must confess or be discovered. If you're somebody who struggles with narratives focused on shame and embarrassment, comedic or otherwise, you may find this hard to watch. In fact, you should, because again that's part of the point. Where the audience becomes complicit in Adam's deception, it suffers. Still, you'll find it hard to turn away.

This is a gem of a film, mixing acknowledged awfulness with gentle culture clash comedy and a surprising amount of warmth. If you've never managed to wrap your head around what's going on with trans people, you'll find it enlightening. If you're trans yourself, you'll find that it speaks directly to you as few other feature films to date have - regardless of whether or not you agree with what it has to say.

Reviewed on: 08 Aug 2019
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Awkward teenager Adam arrives to spend his final high school summer with his older sister, who has thrown herself into New York City's lesbian and trans activist scene. Over the summer, Adam and those around him experience love, friendship, and attendant hard truths in this coming-of-age comedy.

Director: Rhys Ernst

Writer: Ariel Schrag

Starring: Nicholas Alexander, India Menuez, Leo Sheng, Chloe Levine, Margaret Qualley

Year: 2019

Runtime: 95 minutes

Country: US

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