“Adam” Is 2019’s Most Controversial Queer Film—And Its Most Important

An online campaign wants you to boycott Rhys Ernst's movie about a cis teen who deceives a lesbian into thinking he's trans. Here's why you shouldn't.

This story contains spoilers for the new film Adam.

Since its premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Rhys Ernst’s feature directorial debut, Adam, has been the target of an intense online boycott campaign initiated by a U.K. YouTuber who asserts it is transphobic and lesbophobic. Another online flame has claimed that its trans actors were mistreated on set. Based on what’s been written in these attacks, it’s clear that many of the movie’s detractors have not actually seen it, but are decrying what seems like an objectionable plot and critiquing its source material, the 2014 Ariel Schrag novel of the same name—despite the fact that this new adaptation is significantly different from the book.

On the surface, its premise certainly seems problematic. A straight cis teenage boy falls into a relationship with a lesbian who believes he is a trans man; he does not correct her, lying to her until almost the end. Given that we live in a profoundly transphobic society, it’s understandable that skeptics would raise concerns over Adam’s story line. Ernst, who is trans, prominently foregrounded these reservations in his eloquent Medium response piece last year. “Because of the long history of harmful and outright false depictions of trans lives, our community is rightfully distrustful of material that might add to this negative legacy,” he wrote. “However,” he added, “I believe in the power of trans art and storytelling, even when it is challenging or uncomfortable. Creating trans art often requires difficult conversations, and I strive to show up, be present and responsible to this dialogue.”
 

The assault on the film has evolved from a vicious Twitter pile-up (22,000 retweets and 39,000 likes) to a mass effort to lower the film’s IMDb rating by posting one-star “reviews” and calling it everything from “disgusting” to “mortifying” to “trash.” In a rare occurrence, IMDb’s policy team scrubbed nearly two dozen of these postings in the past few weeks, presumably because they were not actually reviews; 568 one-star ratings remain along with several residual attacks on the film and its director.

But these charges seem especially tragic and reactionary when Adam actually serves to dispel transphobia through its storytelling. Clearly, critics have been disappointed in the things it is not: It is not a film with a transman protagonist, nor is it a film in which the straight cis man gets his comeuppance.

So what is it then? In a time when we have so many conventional, generic, uncomplicated LGBTQ films, it is a film by and about queer people that attempts to grapple with larger issues, asking us to think and feel and have a dialogue across the community. It is ultimately a thoughtful, tender, beautiful story that manages to offer original observations on sexual orientation and gender identity.

When Adam begins, it is 2006, and straight cis California high schooler Adam (Nicholas Alexander in a breakout performance) is spending the summer in Brooklyn with his college-age lesbian sister, Casey (the stunning Margaret Qualley, currently making waves in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood), and her group of lesbian and trans friends (including Ethan, played by terrific newcomer Leo Sheng).

At a party one night, the guileless young Adam meets lesbian Gillian (Transparent’s Bobbi Salvör Menuez), who mistakenly assumes he is a transman. Adam is smitten and does not reveal the truth. His failure to disclose his actual gender forces him to contend with his guilty conscience, and his straight cis male consciousness is raised over the course of the summer. While it is obviously uncomfortable to watch, the plot provides a character trajectory never before seen onscreen.

Nicholas Alexander as Adam and Bobbi Salvör Menuez as Gillian in Adam.
Wolfe Releasing
Nicholas Alexander as Adam and Bobbi Salvör Menuez as Gillian in Adam.

As he is immersed in this very particular setting, Adam’s initial misconceptions about trans identity fall away. Our archetypically named male protagonist proceeds through L Word viewing parties (remember TV’s first major transman character, Max?); women-only sex clubs; queer anti-gay-marriage rallies; DVD screenings of classic ’90s lesbian movies like The Incredibly True Adventures of Two Girls in Love (remember DVDs?); and a protest against the exclusion of transwomen from the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival (this sequence features a wonderful cameo from Pose star Mj Rodriguez). His trans-ignorant and cis-centric ideas evolve to the point that he becomes the kind of well-informed queer ally this world so desperately needs.

The idea that transmen could teach cis men what they really need to know about masculinity has been explored at length by the wildly entertaining and wonderfully accessible academic and writer Jack Halberstam, whose seminal book Female Masculinity serves as part of Adam’s crash-course education. But really, who could have imagined that a quirky coming-of-age movie would be the first film in recent memory to show us the path of redemption for straight cis white men?

Leo Sheng as Ethan and Nicholas Alexander as Adam in Adam.
Wolfe Releasing
Leo Sheng as Ethan and Nicholas Alexander as Adam in Adam.

Ernst and Schrag are not going for the sophomoric tone that the plot might seem to imply, nor for the sensational. Rather, the film demonstrates an authentic desire for dialogue and exploration as it depicts the internal struggles of the LGBTQ community—in the various “closets” some of the characters inhabit and in their community trip to Camp Trans, where we get a quick (though not totally thorough) education in how trans-exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs) refused to allow transwomen to attend the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival.

This Camp Trans sequence comes towards the end of the film and is especially powerful as we see all the characters introduce themselves, giving their names and pronouns (it may scan as a bit anachronistic since that level of pronoun awareness was not yet really a thing in 2006, but it’s still affecting). In another powerful scene, Adam and his roommates watch a newscast about the killing of a transgender teen (the coverage is reminiscent of Gwen Araujo’s murder in 2002). Adam’s grasp of what’s at stake for his new friends is made clear; the moment is transformative for him.

Ernst and screenwriter Schrag have crafted Adam with a remarkable degree of nuance that enables us to identify with Adam’s dilemma as his situation grows more complex. Because of the way other aspects of the story unfold, we are mostly able to forgive him for his deception.

Spoiler alert: One of the reasons for this is that when Adam finally confesses to Gillian that he is not a transman, she reveals that she already knew he was cis. The film doesn’t delve deeply into it, but it’s clear Gillian is grappling with her bisexuality, an identity that faces its own unique struggle within the LGBTQ community. I say we are “mostly” able to forgive Adam because, honestly, it’s hard not to feel an impulse towards anger, a righteous rage at the idea of letting a cis straight man get away with such duplicity. It’s not an insignificant flaw of the film, but at least for me—as someone who identifies as a non-cis butch dyke and closeted bisexual—it doesn’t destroy the perfection of everything else.

As Halberstam points out in his must-read defense of Kimberly Peirce’s Boys Don’t Cry, from when the film was targeted with a similarly misguided reactionary boycott campaign when it screened at Reed College in late 2016: “At a time of political terror, at a moment when Fascists are in [the] highest offices in the land, when white men are ready and well positioned to mete out punishment to women, queers, and undocumented laborers, we have to pick our enemies very carefully. Spending time and energy protesting the work of an extremely important queer filmmaker is not only wasteful, it is morally bankrupt and misses the true danger of our historical moment.”

Bobbi Salvör Menuez as Gillian and Nicholas Alexander as Adam and in Adam.
Wolfe Releasing
Bobbi Salvör Menuez as Gillian and Nicholas Alexander as Adam in Adam.

Indeed, Adam’s production and release call attention to the paucity of films that are genuinely made by, for, and about trans men. We are long overdue for an American narrative feature film with a transman protagonist who is not murdered (such as the tremendous but tragic Boys Don’t Cry), or in which what we are really seeing is the story of a passing woman (Glenn Close’s admirable but unsatisfying Albert Nobbs). Since Silas Howard and Harry Dodge’s wonderful 2001 By Hook or By Crook (on which I was a consulting producer), I can think of only one other U.S. narrative feature that tackled this: the 2015 film 3 Generations, which in many ways is less about the experience of its protagonist (played by cis actress Elle Fanning) and more about how the people around him are coping with his transition. A few international films deserving of acknowledgment include Tomboy (2011), Romeos (2011), Facing Mirrors (2011), 52 Tuesdays (2013), and Two 4 One (2014). There has also been an abundance of documentaries over the decades—recent standouts worth seeking out are Real Boy (2016) and Man Made (2018).

Thankfully, Ernst is at this very moment hard at work on a new script for a project he describes as a “middle-aged trans guy buddy movie.” But for now, get out and see this one.

Adam recently screened at Outfest in Los Angeles, where it earned a special mention citation from the U.S. Narrative Feature jury. It opens theatrically in New York City on August 14 and in Los Angeles on August 23 before expanding to other cities.

Jenni Olson is one of the world's leading experts on LGBT cinema history and a co-founder of PlanetOut.com. Her latest film project is "The Royal Road."
@JenniOlsonSF