“Adam,” Rhys Ernst’s superbly acted feature directing debut adapted for the screen by Ariel Schrag from her own novel, travels back to 2006, a time when George W. Bush still governed and YouTube was in its infancy, for a queer drama about a straight boy. As insensitive as that premise might sound, the resulting film is tenderly provocative and markedly vital.
In New York City for the summer, shy high school student Adam (Nicholas Alexander) enters his sister Casey’s (Margaret Qualley, seen in Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood”) circle of friends composed of transgender people and cisgender lesbians. Mistaken for a trans man by Gillian (Bobbi Salvör Menuez), a girl he likes, he appropriates the trans identity and gains illegitimate access to women-only spaces. While he’s immersed in the sorrows, elations and life-or-death organizing of a community he doesn’t belong to, coming out as a liar becomes his burden.
Even if the experience transforms Adam forever, he’ll get to go back to his unthreatened heterosexual existence while trans women and men continue to be murdered. Acknowledging that privilege and educating others is not something he should be applauded for, but the minimum he must do as reparation. That’s what the story subtly demands of him, a teachable and remorseful individual blindsided by ignorance.
Alexander’s androgynous appearance and soft demeanor enable the plot to function, as does Ernst’s mind-blowing commitment to period specificity: from antiquated technology to Jay Wadley’s upbeat, electronic score. Trans actor and activist Leo Sheng defies outdated notions of masculinity as Adam’s role model, and “Pose’s” breakout star MJ Rodriguez enchants in a stirring cameo.
Though 2006 might not seem too far removed from our present, in terms of LGBTQ visibility the distance between then and now is considerable. “Adam” reminds us how much, thankfully, society has slowly changed and yet how far we still are from real change.
Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes
Playing: Starts August 23, Laemmle Music Hall, Beverly Hills