Adam Isn’t Worth the Controversy

Adam Isn’t Worth the Controversy

In a meeting of the blogs, Kotaku editor at large Riley MacLeod and Jezebel’s Rich Juzwiak attended a screening of the highly controversial queer film Adam on Thursday afternoon for the sake of a discussion-based post. What you are reading is that post.

Adam is a movie about—stay with me here—a cis teenage boy, Adam (Nicholas Alexander), who pretends to be a trans man in order to sleep with a slightly older queer girl, Gillian (Bobbi Salvör Menuez). It’s based on a 2014 book by Ariel Schrag, a cartoonist who did a stint writing for The L Word and who wrote the screenplay. It’s directed by Rhys Ernst (Transparent), who’s trans, so it has some queer pedigree behind it, but it’s still a weird idea for a queer movie. Adam was a contentious book when it came out, and the movie has been possibly more controversial.

Many trans people have criticized the book’s narrative for centering cis people, for indulging in the trope that trans people are liars, and for suggesting trans people have some kind of cache or privilege that cis people would want, a thought exercise that bulldozes over the oppression and discrimination trans people face. The book included some upsetting and offensive plot points that the filmmakers have repeatedly reminded potential viewers have been changed or removed for the film. Some controversy has swirled around Adam’s production and the possible mistreatment of its extras, but most of the trans people I know are just baffled that we’re talking about Adam again. As a trans guy, I was happy to spend an afternoon in 2014 reading the worst parts of the book aloud while shrieking; why anyone would feel the need to bring its awkward story back is beyond me. But here we are. —Riley MacLeod

(Spoilers below)

Rich: Tell me, Riley, are you outraged after sitting through that movie?

Riley: I was READY to be outraged, but surprisingly, I’m not. Mostly, I just don’t understand why Adam exists; I don’t know who it’s for and what it’s trying to say to those people. I wasn’t wildly offended by it so much as I feel like I just sat next to someone I kind of know while they drunkenly raged about their ex and expected me to agree. So many of the queer characters in the movie seem shitty, or clueless, or self-involved, or just dumb. The movie just felt mean to me, but I think you felt differently.

Rich: So, I saw it in January ahead of its Sundance premiere and I liked it less then than I did this time. After a second watch, I mostly think it’s just kind of goofy. I respect the line of thinking that says issues are too urgent, representation too dire to support a movie that is lazy when it comes to identity and queer politics, but I don’t see this film as a clear and present danger. It’s muddled. Some provocative ideas float in and out; a lot of bullshit surrounds them. It really wants to transport you to 2006 by showing you a T-Mobile Sidekick and less gentrified Bushwick and queer kids singing Ani DiFranco at karaoke, but upon arrival you find this rebuilt world is populated with caricatures. My best-faith reading of a best case scenario is that there’s satire afoot: Adam’s sister Casey (Margaret Qualley) goes for a trans woman after dating a trans man, and gets called out for deviating from her supposed lesbianism, to which she exclaims, “Whatever! I’m queer!” That made me snort. Adam is too tonally uneven for me to really admire it—it has the broad concept of a major studio movie in which you’re supposed to buy every character’s stupidity wholesale and even absorb it yourself, but then it’s framed and scripted like an intimate, mumbling indie. Nevertheless, I find it fairly amusing overall. I was never bored, I’ll say that.

I knew a lot of shitty trans guys in 2006, and I wasn’t so great myself—but I feel like I never got quite what they were trying to say about queerness or transness or even cis guys.

Riley: It’s interesting to me that you call it satirical because it doesn’t feel that way to me. To sound overly dramatic, I was there in the 2006 Brooklyn in which Adam takes place. I went to those parties; I, uh, participated in that sex club dick-sucking competition. Those times are ripe for satire, but I didn’t feel like it was ever a joke. Maybe the character of Adam’s sister, like you say, but I never felt like there was a wink or some kind of contrast to let me know she was a commentary on… whatever the filmmakers think she was a commentary on. I found it weird in the beginning of the movie when Adam asks what others think of the trans guy Casey, saying, “He’s kind of annoying, right?” when we haven’t actually seen him be annoying. The movie says trans guys are bad or jerks, and the idea that we’re so juvenile-looking or -acting that a cis teenager could be mistaken for an adult trans guy certainly drives that point home. I felt like Schrag (who wrote the screenplay in addition to its novel source) and Ernst wanted to dunk on the trans guys they had to hang out with in 2006. Which, like, believe me I’m there for—I knew a lot of shitty trans guys in 2006, and I wasn’t so great myself—but I feel like I never got quite what they were trying to say about queerness or transness or even cis guys.

Rich: The satire, if it is present and I’m not inventing it, is subtle, a la My So-Called Life, in that it presents a barely intensified version of a type for the sake of absurd humor. But I think probably only “girl” Casey, who’s sort of feeling her way through her queerness by latching onto anyone and even openly mimicking them, qualifies there, and the product is absurdity-lite regardless. And yeah, I agree that it doesn’t really have that much to say. It has ideas, sure: It’s possible for a straight guy to have queer sex; It’s possible for a straight cis guy to learn how to be a man from a trans dude (his roommate Ethan comes out as trans in a pivotal moment); How much does all of the identity discussion actually matter when it comes to being attracted to a person’s essence? But it isn’t exactly a well of insight. These ideas are tangents, rumblings, unresolved inklings. I appreciate that it isn’t didactic, but that’s to a fault. All of this would matter less in a world with more queer films, more depictions of trans people and lesbians. As is, Adam is yet another movie that purports to discuss queer life by centering a straight cis character, which is pretty annoying!

AS IS, Adam is yet another movie that purports to discuss queer life by centering a straight cis character, which is pretty annoying!

Riley: The question of disclosure is almost interesting to me: Do you have to tell your partner you’re trans? And when, and why? It was interesting to me that Adam doesn’t initiate the lie: everyone just assumes he’s trans and he goes along with it for a while, which is bizarre—like, has no one ever seen a cis guy before? I didn’t think about the sex Adam and his girlfriend have as being, like, a cis guy learning about queer sex. Ethan (Leo Sheng), his roommate, gives him some good advice, like telling him to ask his girlfriend Gillian what she wants when Adam asks him for sex advice, but I don’t know if we ever see that in practice. We never really see Adam learning some lessons or anything like that. The movie ends with some kind of “and it was a perfect summer” skyline scene, though one that’s a little battered, but we don’t know what he does with any of the lessons, if he’s learned any.

Rich: Well, Adam gets to understand the joy of topping with a strap-on, which is something cis men rarely experience firsthand. But generally speaking, it’s true, the application of his knowledge is unresolved. I’m appreciating the gesture here. It’s just kind of cool to see a trans guy schooling a cis guy on how to be a man. There’s some kind of better movie to be made from that dynamic, I think. What I resent about everyone assuming Adam is trans on sight is that it made me as a viewer ask myself, “Does he pass as trans?” The passing conversation, organizing people based on their appearance and what I understand that to mean in terms of trans and cis, feels pretty retrograde at this point… maybe in that respect the movie transported me to 2006 all too well. Adam repeatedly gets into spaces that are verboten to cis men without anyone batting an eye. I feel like they’d be better at sniffing him out?

Riley: I was really pissed off by the sex club scene, where the sign clearly says “women only” but it’s full of what appear to be trans guys, which Adam’s passing as facilitates entrance to. There’s definitely a critique to be made of the “women and trans” scene of the early aughts, which in my experience excluded trans women while giving trans men a weird and sometimes insulting welcome. But there were women-only parties back then, and trans men didn’t go to them. Gender was (and is) complicated, but it’s not like everyone was walking around saying, “Trans men are women, let’s fuck.” It seemed like another moment that was trying to be a critique, but just seemed ridiculous.

Rich: But maybe most insulting is the idea that nobody talks to anybody? His sister and his girlfriend aren’t in the same circle, but their circles are concentric, and no one ever says to Casey, “Why is your brother dating a lesbian?” No one ever says to Gillian, “So you’re into cis guys now?” Not even at Camp Trans! So politics aside just for a second, this movie is insulting on a pretty fundamental level in terms of its audience’s intelligence, regardless of sexuality or gender identity.

Riley: Yeah, there’s no way you could have that many queer people and not have any gossip, but it seems like one more way that the movie isn’t really engaging with any of the issues it seems to want to touch on. The book was very controversial in trans circles when it came out, not the least of which because it wasn’t written by a trans person. Ernst has said the movie is an effort to “reinterpret this story through a trans lens,” but I don’t even see what’s particularly trans about it. Ethan is kind of a complicated trans male character, but once he’s revealed to be trans, he felt to me like he served as a, “Gasp, a trans man could be good?!” compared to the way all the other trans men in the movie just kind of exist in the background while we’re told they’re terrible. There’s a case to be made that it’s a movie about cis queer women’s obsession with or conceptions of trans men, which isn’t a terribly interesting thing to wonder about in 2019, nor was it in 2014 when the book came out. That said, I mostly dated men back in 2006, so if there was some world in which being a trans man would instantly get you laid by cis women, I wasn’t really benefitting from it, so maybe that critique is lost on me.

Rich: I don’t really think the movie hates its characters or thinks queer people are terrible, just maybe annoying. I kinda see its point. People are annoying, especially New Yorkers in their early 20s. I think the movie is a little sarcastic and cynical, but I didn’t get that much “terrible” coming from it. They’re whiny and misleading at worst, but inherently worthy of attention and consideration per the film’s existence. “Terrible” is almost giving it too much credit. That kind of stance on its characters would actually be saying something, and as we’ve established, Adam isn’t saying much of anything. As it stands, I thought of this movie mostly as an exercise in queering the mistaken-identity/imposter-for-love tropes we’ve seen so many times. I’m not sure that it was successful in whatever it was setting out to do, but I don’t know how hazardous to anyone’s health this little movie will prove to be. (It’s playing just a few times a day at this point at the IFC Center where it opened last week. We saw it in a tiny theater of 30 seats, a screening room essentially, and there were about four other people in the theater besides us.)

Riley: The movie feels like a period piece of a period piece—a 2019 movie of a 2014 book about 2006. In his Medium post explaining it, Ernst says 2006 was “well before the trans tipping point,” which is honestly a phrase I’ve never heard a trans person use and probably says a lot about where the movie is coming from. The issues the movie feels concerned with—if women who date trans men are still queer, whether or how trans men are men—feel terribly dated. It’s not even a very interesting investigation of the “trans people are deceiving others” trope, though in the end, when Gillian admits she knew and was sort of complicit because it meant she could like Adam, it seems like it’s trying to be interesting. But that moment just felt awkward and weird to me. I wanted Adam’s sister to rush in and yell “Whatever! I’m queer!”

I just don’t know what Adam is trying to say. So little trans art gets the support this movie will, even though it’s not a terribly big movie, so I think it blows the movie’s importance out of proportion. But it’s not an important enough movie, ultimately, to even be as dangerous as some trans critique seems to fear it is. I don’t think many people are going to see it, but I also don’t understand who it’s supposed to be for. It doesn’t seem to be for straight people, but I don’t think queer people will get much out of it, even they can even deign to see it at all. Some people behind us in the theater were laughing, though; I kept wanting to turn around and try to get a read on who they were, but it seemed rude.

Rich: It’s true, they were having a great time. If for no one else, Adam was made for them.

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