When I watch movies that I know I am going to hate, I always try to view them in the company of a particular friend who has become a kind of movie-watching chaperone. Sharing the experience of a painfully awful film helps temper my rage. One summer day when we decided to rent Adam and Mozart and the Whale as a double-feature, my friend seemed far more entertained by my wrathful outbursts than by the movies themselves.
The 2009 romantic drama Adam features a relationship between a non-autistic woman and a man with Asperger syndrome. Any portrayal of autistic sexuality has the potential to be subversive, but unfortunately this particular movie squanders that potential and reinforces existing tropes about autism and disability. Watching it as a person on the spectrum, I was pissed off to no end at the film’s insistance that people like me are too naive, alien, and downright dangerous to maintain an intimate relationship.
Adam opens with a voiceover that plays over a shot of the starry night sky against which the opening credits solemnly fade in and out. The voice is that of Beth (Rose Byrne), the lead female character, wistfully recounting how her favorite children’s book “is about a prince who came to Earth from a distant asteroid.” The prince meets a pilot whose plane has crashed in a desert and “teaches the pilot many things, but mainly about love.” “My father always told me I was like the little prince,” says Beth, “but, after I met Adam, I realized I was the pilot all along.” This opening soliloquy tritely encapsulates the entire story before the film has even begun. Continuing in the tradition of developmentally disabled characters in Hollywood films, Adam’s ultimate purpose is the moral instruction and betterment of the non-disabled Beth and, by extension, of the audience. Despite being the title character, he is ultimately a plot device.
In his first lines of dialogue, it is revealed that Adam avoids eye contact, a common autistic trait, and that he speaks rapidly and with atypical prosody, a characteristic established by Dustin Hoffman’s performance in Rain Man which has, like savantism, come to define autistic characters in film even though language abnormalities do not always manifest this way, and atypical language development and use is not necessarily part of an Asperger’s diagnosis. (Also, the vast majority of autistic people are not savants.)
Adam meets Beth, an elementary school teacher hoping to become a children’s writer, when she moves into his apartment complex, and during one of their very first encounters the film makes sure to further illustrate Adam’s strangeness and “inappropriate” behavior along with establishing a rapport between the characters. Beth arrives at their building with a cart of heavy packages, while Adam sits on the front steps with his laptop. He returns her greeting with a remark about new images from NASA’s Cassini mission. This is clearly meant to signify his social ineptitude. After making a show of clumsily dragging her packages partway up the steps, Beth pointedly says “Well, I’ll just be hauling these enormous grocery bags upstairs now…” to which Adam simply replies “Okay” without offering to help her. Again, this is meant to signify his lack of social skills in that he is unable to pick up on her hint, but doesn’t it say something about Beth’s own poor social skills that she uses a passive aggressive hint in the first place, instead of simply asking for help with her groceries? Her interpersonal skills are never called into question, and this moment of passive aggression is presented as a normal expression of exasperation.
As part of the same encounter, Beth invites Adam to a small gathering, promising to knock on his door at eight o’clock to see if he has decided to accompany her. That night finds Adam waiting anxiously in his apartment, growing ever more agitated as eight o’clock passes and the minutes tick by. The uncertainty caused by this deviation from what he understood to be a fixed plan causes the first emotional reaction from his character so far as he begins to panic. When Beth is finally heard knocking on the door, Adam cannot bring himself to answer. Pressing his back against the door frame, he looks into a mirror beside him and his face contorts with a look of self-loathing. Aware of how odd his behavior seemed, he makes a point of apologizing to Beth after her party, and invites her to his apartment to show her an elaborate projection of the galaxy that he has set up in his living room. During this scene, it becomes clear that space is Adam’s “special interest”—a subject on which he obsessively amasses an encyclopedic amount of knowledge.
Following this encounter with Beth, Adam tries to converse about recent developments in astronomy over lunch with Harlan (Frankie Faison), a friend of his father’s who acts as a mentor and guardian, and whose character falls uncomfortably close to the archetype of the Magical Negro. “Speak English!” Harlan exclaims when Adam tries to engage with him about space. “Lunch time is for guy talk: two guys talking about women, the weather, and such.” The point that appropriate interaction between men should not extend beyond inane small talk and the objectification of women is visually emphasized when a woman in a short, tight skirt walks by in the foreground, only her upper legs and waist visible, and Harlan gazes after her with a grunt of lustful appreciation. When Adam tells Harlan about Beth, Harlan instructs him, “Adam, you’re the man. You have to start the conversation.”
As a gesture of following through with his budding romantic interest in Beth, Adam takes her to Central Park at night to watch raccoons. “Raccoons? In Central Park?” Beth exclaims. (As if astounded by the very idea, even though raccoons are extremely common in New York City…) “How did you know where’d they be?” she asks Adam, enchanted. (Despite the fact that Central Park is the single most obvious place in the city to look for arboreal mammals.) The question leads to a little exploration of Adam’s character as he expresses how he enjoys the quiet of sitting and watching the raccoons, and an awkward metaphor is introduced when he says “They don’t really belong here, but here they are.” This metaphor carries through to the end of the film, and serves to emphasize the underlying idea that autistic people are somehow inhuman and not of this world.
The next day, Adam loses his job at a toy manufacturer because somehow his attention to detail, task commitment, and high level of skill are costing the company money. Distraught, he walks to the school where Beth works and stands in the parking lot waiting for her while children cavort on the playground. A police car rolls up behind him, and the officer asks what he is doing. “I’m watching the children,” is his reply, obviously meant to convey that he is too “innocent” to understand why a grown man watching school children might be cause for alarm. The police let him go, but only after roughly handling him in order to check his identification. Beth emerges from the school, but Adam is too distraught to speak to her and hurries away. The scene that immediately follows this is brief and disturbing. Adam stands alone in his dimly-lit apartment, his face close to the mirror beside his door. Wordlessly, he slams his head once against the mirror, cracking it, and gazes blankly at his reflection as blood trickles down his forehead. The scene clearly conveys that even though he is “innocent,” Adam harbors a capacity for violence and is therefore dangerous.
The scene which marks the real initiation of Adam and Beth’s relationship is yet another awkward interaction in which Adam has invited Beth into his apartment. When Beth remarks “I had a really nice time last night in the park,” Adam responds with “Were you excited?” She expresses puzzlement and he quickly clarifies, “Sexually. When we were in the park.” She responds in the negative and is obviously uneasy, but he barrels on with “Well, I ask because I was, and I wondered if you were too.” As one might expect if such a conversation played out in real life, Beth promptly gets up to leave. This is the set-up for the film’s “reveal” (which a viewer would already have anticipated if she had seen the trailer or read any publicity associated with the film) in which Adam confesses to Beth that he has Asperger syndrome. He offers it as an excuse for his inappropriate question, and, though still shaken, she accepts it. The unspoken implication is that a developmental disability somehow precludes the possibility of sexual assault. Adam’s condition excuses his unwanted sexual advances because it makes him too “innocent” to have considered following through with them.
For some reason this revelation only further intrigues Beth, and she seeks more information from a fellow teacher who tells her that Asperger syndrome is “like a high-functioning form of autism” and confirms that, because of this, Adam “isn’t really prime relationship material.” Nonetheless, Beth is charmed by Adam’s “quirky” behavior and his obvious affection for her, and becomes set on making Adam into into a kind of pet project. In the process of socializing with him and trying to “normalize” his behaviors, she becomes romantically involved with him.
Although the relationship between Adam and Beth is implicitly sexual, the film avoids portraying any actual sex scenes. The closest it gets is a scene in which Adam and Beth sprawl, fully-clothed, across Beth’s bed. “Do you want sex?” he asks with his characteristic bluntness. “I think I do,” she replies, and the scene cuts away as they kiss. They never even start to take their clothes off. There is one other brief scene that shows them in bed together, but they are literally just sleeping. Thus the film avoids fully confronting autistic sexuality and the reality of autistic desire, and thereby avoids having to rupture the recurring theme of Adam’s “innocence.”
The film maintains tension via the cliché that Beth’s family is wealthy and her parents want her to marry someone who can offer her financial stability. (At one point, her father even says “If you married an investment banker…”) There is also a poorly integrated and unnecessary subplot in which Beth’s father is convicted of tampering with financial records and in the process is revealed to have cheated on his wife. Ostensibly the point is the tired truism “money isn’t everything,” and that even with wealth and stability one can feel unfulfilled.
Ultimately, however, Beth and Adam’s relationship fails precisely because—monetary wealth aside—he cannot provide her with protection and stability. The relationship first begins to fall apart in a scene where Adam unwittingly discovers that Beth has lied to him about a seemingly trivial matter. He explodes at her, shouting and physically striking out against objects in the room. The meltdown is poorly integrated into the plot—it had not been in any way previously established that Adam placed any special value on honesty—but the point of the scene is to re-emphasize his childlike unpredictability. As Beth’s father later puts it: “It’s not his fault, but he’s more like a child than anything else. He’ll never be the kind of man that you can admire, that you can look up to…He lives in another world. You shouldn’t have to make that kind of compromise.”
Despite Beth’s initial protest, she ultimately takes her father’s words to heart. In a conversation over the phone with her mother, she condenses them into what essentially comprises the core message of the film: “We’ll never have a moment when we look into each other’s eyes and know exactly what the other person’s feeling.” For good measure, she adds “He’s never told me that he loves me. I don’t know what it would mean to him if he did.” People with Asperger syndrome are incompatible with the popular notion of romantic love, the kind of wholly fictitious yet irresistibly desirable bond wherein two people can magically read each other’s thoughts. In fact, our very understanding of and expression of love as a concept is alien.
Moments after voicing these revelations, Beth finds out from Adam that he does love her, and what that means. It means, in part, the usual clichés, such as “You’re a part of me,” but it also means that he looks to her for guidance and support when navigating the non-autistic world. This latter part finally drives her away, even as she had been about to accompany him on a move from New York to California to take up a new job. At the last minute, she breaks off the relationship for good because she realizes that she cannot turn Adam into a normal, appropriate partner. He will never be able to fulfill his masculine role. The very last scenes of the film are a coda in which Adam has adjusted to his new job and Beth has published a picture book. The tone of the closing scene, in which Beth sends Adam a copy of her book with the note “Look how far we’ve come,” and the lyrics of the song that plays over it—”Can’t Go Back Now” by The Weepies—make it clear that Beth had been a surrogate maternal figure whose guidance nudged Adam closer to being “normal.” Adam was a device through which Beth “found herself” and achieved some kind of nebulous moral betterment.
A non-autistic viewer ostensibly is meant, like Beth, to come away from the film with a vague sense of “betterment.” As an autistic viewer, I find the film rather crushing, and I am left only with a renewed understanding that I am constructed, by a discursive web of popular media and pop-psychology, as at best a quirky innocent lost in my own world and at worst as an unpredictable monster lurking in human shape. In any case, the message is the same old notion that autistic people are unworthy or incapable of intimate relationships, at least with non-autistic partners.