“Adam,” the directorial debut of Rhys Ernst, a producer on Amazon’s “Transparent,” has a lot of first-film problems. It’s overly ambitious, it has too many characters, and it tries to do too much. But there is also a lot here that feels fresh and original, particularly in the first half, which takes in a lot of new territory — both thematic and geographic — with a pleasing light touch.
Most films set in Manhattan don’t capture the flavor and intensity of the city, but “Adam” is an exception. In spite of any budgetary limitations he may have had, Ernst makes sure that this coming-of-age story is alive with specific places and references that fix it in the year 2006.
That’s when 18-year-old virgin Adam (Nicholas Alexander) goes to visit his sister Casey (Margaret Qualley, “Novitiate”), who lives communal-style in Manhattan, where she goes to school. The posters on the walls of their living space tell us who these kids are: “The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love” is a touchstone for both Casey and Gillian (Bobbi Salvör Menuez, “I Love Dick”), a young beauty known for having taken a girl to her prom in a rural Oklahoma town.
When Adam sees Gillian at a party, he is immediately smitten, and she is also quite taken with him, but there’s a catch: Because he has been hanging around exclusively with Casey’s friends, all of whom are gay, trans, and as gender-queer as they like, Gillian assumes that Adam is a trans man. He tells her that he’s older than he is, and that he goes to school at Berkeley, but he is able to drop those lies fairly quickly. What he can’t seem to do is admit to her that he is a cisgender male.
Alexander and Menuez both have very open faces, and they react and interact with each other in a pleasingly natural, unguarded way. Their mutual openness makes them ideal for all the scenes here where Ernst leads them (and us) into spaces we don’t usually get to see in movies. There’s a lively camaraderie captured in the group scene where Casey and her friends all sit and watch “The L Word” together, a sense that we are seeing a social group behaving as they would if unobserved by a camera.
“Adam” is a nostalgic period piece — these kids are all on flip phones and rarely go on the Internet. When they want to socialize, they have to go out, and they go out to some pretty raunchy places. Ernst takes his camera into a legendary lesbian bar in the East Village called The Hole, which features thumping music, graffiti-ed walls and horny clientele. There’s a very funny character portrait here of a 30-year-old female poet who confesses, “Can I tell you a secret? I want to be a star!” before taking Adam into the restroom for some action that he isn’t ready for.
Ernst also matter-of-factly takes us and Adam on a tour of a lesbian S&M bar, where Adam is afraid of being caught out. He puts a leather hood on to disguise himself before asking Gillian to go after he sees his sister Casey having sex on stage. His reason? He tells Gillian he finds the very wild club “boring,” which is exactly what this kid would say to get himself out of there and still seem cool.
“Adam” often feels like it wants to bloom into an all-out farce, but Ernst is much too cautious for that. His framing is very centered and orderly, to a nearly Wes Anderson degree, and his intentions are earnest. He wants to make an enjoyable film with a novel social backdrop, but he also wants to make a statement on trans lives, and the lightmess of the comedy-drama gradually starts to collapse under the weight of this intention.
The relationship between Adam and Gillian is complicated and new enough to sustain interest for the length of a film, but Ernst and his screenwriter Ariel Schrag, who wrote the novel on which the movie is based, begin to pile on characters and conflicts and speeches and confrontations, and rather than rise organically out of the material, they feel shoehorned in. Before that happens, however, “Adam” feels like a very original take on a romantic gender situation that could be described as Shakespearean, if Shakespeare had written crucial scenes involving strap-ons.