Complicated Thoughts on “Adam”

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I have never read “Adam”, the 2014 novel by Ariel Schrag.

Back when I used Tumblr like I use Twitter now, I would come across discussion of the novel from time to time, albeit sparsely. Occasional warning posts would circulate with discussion of all the novel’s, uh, questionable content, and would tell others to stay away.

For context, Adam’s plot synopsis is as follows — “a seventeen-year-old boy comes to New York City to live with his older sister for the summer of 2006. Adam is straight and cisgender, but is introduced to the LGBTQ community of New York through his sister ... During his stay, he becomes attracted to a gay woman. After being mistaken for a transgender man, he decides to maintain the deception in order to date the woman.”

Believe me, I would’ve loved to have read that, gagged, and moved on with my life. But, low and behold, a film adaptation was announced in late 2016, and Adam the film first premiered in January of 2019, before having a limited release in August of the same year. If it had a wide release, I missed it; it appears to have gone straight to streaming.

Considering the subject matter of the film, I was surprised to look into the cast and crew of the project and see a good number of transgender voices present. The director (Rhys Ernst) is a trans man, the role of Gillian- Adam’s love interest- is filled by non binary actor Bobbi Salvör Menuez, and other transgender actors occupy a multitude of smaller supporting roles (Leo Sheng, Mj Rodriguez, and Dana Aliya Levinson, to name just a few).

However, with Ariel Schrag solely responsible for writing the screenplay, my anxiety over the film’s quality did not lessen.

To give a short summary of her writing process for the initial novel: Schrag said she “started to have this fantasy that Adam Rapp [a real man she worked alongside] would go out to clubs and pretend to be a trans man in order to gather fodder for this lesbian TV show”. She thought about how young men could “clean up” if they took advantage of lesbians who “fawned over trans men who looked like teenage boys”.

All fun things that I swear didn’t make me throw up in my mouth.

As Schrag is queer herself (self-identified), I don’t want to completely void her opinions on LGBT issues of merit, but the seeming lack of self awareness to the transphobia of her thought processes is… alarming. She’s not someone who I’m going to willingly consume media from on a regular basis.

Anyway, as I’ve not read the book, I cannot speak for it in great detail, but I can point you to several reviews that go into its, erm, problems. Here, and here; be warned that the second review goes much more into the rape and issues of consent in the novel. Go ahead and brace for major transphobia in the following excerpt from the book as well.

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image via vellichorprodz on Twitter

*Deep breath*

Novel aside, we’re here to talk about the film. As an adaptation, it had the chance to become its own entity and perhaps learn from the mistakes of its original source material; Schrag started writing the book in 2007, so maybe now, more than ten years later, the screenplay would show growth in how to better handle the sensitive topics. Rhys Ernst has gone on record as saying while initially apprehensive, he found the actual screenplay ultimately pleasing (his full statements can be found here), which led me to being somewhere on the spectrum of “hopefully pessimistic”.

For several months, my online sphere was alight with posts warning other people to stay as far away from the film as possible. And I certainly don’t blame anyone for the caution; I can’t think of a single film about transgender men (excluding documentaries) that is any better than “maybe passable”, and I haven’t seen any decent films about transgender women. Especially in the wake of Scarlett Johansson’s “political correctness is destroying my ability to play a transgender man” diva rant, I don’t think anybody was ready to give this movie any sort of fair chance, whether it ultimately deserved it or not.

We aren’t wrong for being extremely cautious with a film that focuses on us, especially when it comes from such a strange and undeniably controversial source. But, Ernst is right in that criticism of the film should come from seeing the film itself, not from the source material alone.

So, Adam, 2019.

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Nicholas Alexander (Adam) and Bobbi Salvör Menuez (Gillian)

The film follows the same basic plot as the novel: Adam is a 17 year old high school student who, while visiting his older sister in New York, becomes entangled with the local LGBT community, and enters a relationship with a girl under the pretense that he is a transgender man — complications ensue, cue the Yakety Sax.

First I must say: it took so long to actually find a way of watching this movie, I knew I was going to watch it and write about it, no matter what the quality ended up being. Despite the release date being listed as August 14th, that was only for major film cities like New York and Los Angeles. I never found any showings even remotely close to myself.

The movie ended up eventually falling off my radar for a few weeks until I was reminded of it while talking with my film professor recently; several hours later, I Googled the movie again by chance, and, low and behold, it was up for rent on YouTube.

So.

Secondly: this is not that bad of a movie. Like, not even close to one of the worst movies I’ve seen on the subject of trans people.

Hear me out.

I am not saying that Adam is a good movie, not by any stretch. It’s terribly written, honestly pretty boring, and a lot of what made the original novel so offensive is still in the film and still bad.

But I’ve seen so many worse films about trans people, specifically about trans men, that I came out of this frankly underwhelmed by my high expectation to be offended. This is nowhere near as bad as the book appears to have been.

This is not going to be an article about the “evils” of “cancel culture”, because cancel culture isn’t real and became a term that lost all meaning within, like, a week. But I do look back on all these other films I’ve seen- 52 Tuesdays, Romeos, Desperate Living, Boys Don’t Cry- and compared to those, this is at least a watchable film. Adam did not have me wanting to put a fist through my laptop like so many before.

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Leo Sheng (Ethan) and Nicholas Alexander (Adam)

The film, first of all, directly benefits from being a film. We aren’t stuck in Adam’s first-person perspective, forced to listen to his constantly ugly thoughts. Where in the book, as mentioned before, we’re forced to hear how he deconstructs a transgender man’s “falseness”, we only see a vaguely surface-level example of that in the film; he learns a man is transgender, he looks him over, the scene moves on. It’s still vaguely gross, but it’s not sensational, it’s not fetishistic and over-the-top.

Adam also seems to be significantly less malicious than he was in the book, going off of what excerpts I’ve seen. He does not initially choose to pretend to be transgender (though he does choose to continue the lie put upon him), he does not spy on his sister having sex with her girlfriend, he never slut-shames Gillian — he is a far cry away from what the character is in the book, according to what I’ve read about the book:

“Adam does not grow. He is just as much of a transphobe at the end of the book as at the beginning, viewing the trans bodies at Camp Trans as disgusting, and thinking of cis people as inherently “biological”. And the reader is stuck in his head for the ENTIRE BOOK. The use of Adam as an ‘everyman’ protagonist implies that Schrag believes that the natural thought process of the reader is that trans people are illegitimate and gross.” — Emma, Goodreads

That description of novel-Adam is nowhere close to the Adam of the film. The film, in fact, makes a point to show how moved and genuinely changed he is during the scenes at Camp Trans.

So while Schrag is the only one credited for the screenplay, I have to believe Rhys Ernst or somebody gave her help; when Adam is trying to figure out basic terminology and correct gendering, the writing actually sticks the landing. He asks questions and stumbles over himself in ways I’ve watched before. He is realistically clueless, not a horrific monster who views trans people as subhuman.

I will also say that this is perhaps the only fictionalized film I can think of with so many genuine gay and trans bodies in one place. Despite our unfortunate tethering to the least interesting character, we are still shown a multitude of genuine transgender men, transgender women, lesbians and gay men of all kinds.

I feel it necessary to note that there have been accusations of the filmmakers making butch lesbians portray background characters intended to be transgender men, but I also cannot find any backing of this, either in the film itself or generally online. If it’s an accusation with credibility, this section will be updated accordingly.

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The faults of this movie, though, are still Schrag’s through and through. I know she wrote for television previously (the movie does too, as the characters gather to watch an episode of The L Word and poke fun at a transgender character for being oh-so-quaintly-incorrect; cool self-reference or whatever), but the script is so clunky and falls impressively short of the rest of the technical elements of the film, that I would’ve otherwise assumed she’d only ever written novels. Everyone acts like they’re reading excerpts from the book, not speaking like actual people; when a scene is very clearly supposed to be awkward, it almost works, but otherwise the shortcomings of the script are painfully obvious at every other moment.

I obviously don’t know if these were in the book or not, but Schrag’s influences are very blatantly present in the film. As stated previously, she had lesbian friends who were attracted to trans men, and thought that “a teenage boy could clean up if he got in there”; in the film, a thirty year old lesbian comes onto Adam explicitly because she believes he’s a transgender man (“I love tranny cock”). The character of Gillian was influenced by Constance McMillen, and in the film, Gillian just literally is Constance McMillen.

To a normal audience, these things might have never caught their attention; to me, who’d spent months reading everything about this project, these elements stuck out as much as copy and pasting Wikipedia articles into a school essay would.

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I hinted at this before, but the fact that Adam has to follow around the titular character is one of the film’s least-controversial faults. Portrayed by Nicholas Alexander, doing his best to bounce between a Jesse Eisenberg and Michael Cera impression, he is easily the least interesting thing about the film. I get that the point of him is to be an audience self-insert, specifically for an audience who isn’t LGBT, but, oh my God I’m just so tired of seeing movies with bland as hell white men with no charisma whatsoever in the lead.

What saves Adam from Adam are Bobbi Salvör Menuez and Leo Sheng as Gillian and Ethan. While neither actor is given a whole lot of meat to work with- Ethan disappears from the film for long stretches of time, and Gillian is fairly void of a personality outside of being pretty and gay- they both are still leagues more interesting to watch than the lead.

Ethan’s storyline in particular I really felt myself gravitating towards; one of my more recent articles on Medium has been about trying to assert autonomy over when and to whom I come out to, and throughout the film, we assume Ethan is cisgender until he eventually comes out to Adam, forcing the latter to realize that despite having pretended to be transgender all summer, he still knows nothing about the struggles and inherent fear that come with being trans.

I knew the character and actor were both trans, but that’s because I researched this movie to death before seeing it. This is intended to be a twist to the cisgender audience who watches it. While many of the trans characters of the film are “visibly trans”, Ethan is the representation of those who are less so, and conveys to the audience that you can’t just “tell” who is transgender and who isn’t. And I like that.

Gillian’s storyline, meanwhile … I can see people either hating or being fine with. Because it is a “lesbian-realizes-she’s-bisexual” plot, and that subject incorrectly handled can have horrible implications against a population already violently targeted with corrective rape and violence in general. From the sound of it, the book handled this horribly, seeming to reinforce the falsehood that lesbians can be “turned”.

The film, I think, does better. I don’t know if it completely fixes things, I don’t think it’s void of bad implications, but I don’t think it’s trying to say Gillian was a lesbian “turned”, either.

To start, the word ‘lesbian’ is really never used in reference to her, only ever ‘gay’. And that’s clever enough corrective writing on Schrag’s part, because it somewhat shields her from getting the same criticism twice; in the film, Gillian is undeniably gay, but not explicitly a lesbian. It’s very much a technicality, but, whathaveyou.

And when she and Adam break up, they stay broken up; there is no final scene where it’s implied they might get back together, and, unlike in the book, her story does not end with her dating another man, having realized she was straight all along. There is a conversation at the end in which she admits she felt more comfortable dating Adam because she thought (initially) that he was trans and not cisgender, and she admits that that is transphobic logic. While it feels like touchy territory to have Gillian be the character going through this arc, I can at least say that “being bisexual is okay” is a good message to have in your film.

But that ‘initially’ part is important to note, because in that same conversation, she admits that she’s known Adam wasn’t transgender for a while now, which makes trying to figure their relationship out really confusing for me. Because they are having a lot of sex throughout the summer, and the line of consent is incredibly blurry because of the case of identity and who knows what when.

Again, the film improves slightly upon the book. At no point does Adam ever stop using the prosthetic strapon in order to use his actual dick. That boundary is never crossed in the film.

But because it’s implied that Gillian knew the whole time that he was cisgender (if not before their first time having sex, then absolutely after), that whole question of “was this ever okay?” is … weird? I’m still going to land on the “absolutely it wasn’t” side of it, and the movie seems to as well. Knowing that Gillian ‘knew’ does not make watching the scenes feel any less wrong.

There’s a small moment in the last third of the film, where all these gay and trans people run into the lake to go swimming; there’s a cut, and we see the only one not among them is Adam, who is still fully clothed, sitting on the beach, by himself. It’s a total role reversal on every “hiding your ‘true’ gender” trope seen in film (Yentl, Mulan, Romeos), where that one character is left by themselves, unable to partake in bodily autonomy and freedom with their peers — and I won’t lie, it felt really good to watch this flipped around.

Unlike in the book, where Adam is disgusted by these bodies around him, the camera makes a point to never linger on them, never leer. The camera’s gaze is as loving as it possibly can be. And later, as Mj Rodriguez fulfills her cameo, the camera will occasionally cut back to Adam smiling; while he is not one of them, you get the sense he deeply cares for these people now, where at the beginning he was, at best, deeply confused and ignorant of them.

I think that’s the kind of pleasant catharsis the whole film was trying to give people like me, and it’s really a shame that those mere 20 seconds at the swimming lake were some of the only moments where it really came across.

I commend Rhys Ernst for his efforts on this film, because I think that if a straight person, cisgender person, or even Schrag herself had tried to direct something like this, it would have been the horrible hellfire everybody thought this was going to be. It’s a shame that so many gay and trans bodies came together for this specific subject matter, because I would love to see a celebration of transness when it isn’t constantly fighting for focus with a plot as gross as this.

I want to see more films that look like this. I want to see gay people being messy and flawed and human. I want to hear transgender-specific terminology thrown around with casual ease and for it to be as breezy and light as it was here. I want more of these stories where there is barely focus on the inherent violence of our reality. We should be able to leave the tragedy porn behind us for once.

I just wish it wasn’t this movie. Because at the end of the day, this movie is still insufferably tethered to the most uninteresting person it could’ve been tethered to. It’s still a movie that’s about the only cis straight man in the room, and it’s another movie that should be about us, rather than being about how cisgender people have to learn to accept transness. I got 3 Generations’d again, damnit.

If there’s a way you can cut out all the scenes that only pertain to Adam and make this an aimless ensemble film, I might genuinely recommend this.

But as is, I can only really recommend this with the stipulation that you know what you’re getting into beforehand; I can’t imagine going into this cold. I think if you’re looking for gay movies, there’s hundreds of better ones out there; if you’re looking for trans movies, though, I don’t know how to categorize this one. It’s not a “trans movie” because of Adam, it’s a trans movie because of how many real trans people populate it, but at the same time, they’re almost all in the background.

I stand by that there are no good fictional films about transgender people, but this is not the bottom of the barrel. There are elements of the film that work where many others have failed before.

Going back to 3 Generations, I wrote about that movie as an example of how good writing can fall flat when it’s delivered by cisgender actors, because casting in films of this subject matter is vital to get right:

It’s not even that the “boy with tits” line is inherently bad or unrealistic for the character to say; as a man with tits, it's a phrase I’ve used before. It’s a phrase I’ve seen other trans men use before. So it’s not that the line was bad, its that who was saying it didn’t fit.

Because Elle Fanning isn’t a “boy with tits”, she’s a woman with tits, and she is likely to remain that for the rest of her life. Watching that scene felt like watching myself in a fun house mirror — sure all the basic elements of myself were there, but it wasn’t me. Elle Fanning will never get it, no matter how much she tries to mirror to perfection; no cis actor ever will.

In Adam, it is always a trans person saying lines about transness. When Adam is discussing top surgery, he’s talking about it with a transgender man. It’s something I’ve never gotten from Hollywood before, and I have to give this movie credit for that, in spite of all the horrible things it also has to be given credit for.

So, yeah, my thoughts on this movie are very complicated. Probably too complicated. I spent months imagining this movie in its worst possible form, in part because I’ve watched a lot of films about people like me. I know how offensive and degrading they are capable of being. And so when the film came out bad, but not painful, I really had to sit down and think it out.

I think it says something on the current state of transgender cinema that a film can be bad and I can still say “well, at least it didn’t spit on the memory of a real trans person, and it didn’t call me a self-absorbed freakshow, so it really wasn’t that bad!”

Sigh.

Adam, 2019 — it’s not complete garbage. Put that on the cover for a critic’s quote.

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Adam is currently available for rent and for purchase on YouTube and Google Play

20, he/him transsexual. Questions, comments or requests at kredino@gmail.com — Selected works at loganashley.contently.com

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