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Monday, September 22, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 60.0° F  Fair
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Adam dramatizes the struggles of Asperger's syndrome
Learning the basics
They meet cute — or, rather, awkward.
They meet cute — or, rather, awkward.

The Asperger's syndrome-themed romantic comedy Adam reminds me of the ABC Afterschool Special films of my 1980s youth. I mostly mean that as a compliment. Those performances etched their way into my being (Scott Baio in The Boy Who Drank Too Much!), and I'd like to think I learned a few things from the producers' lecturing about social issues. Turns out teen drinking is bad.

I'm likewise moved by searing perfomances in Adam. And I'm likewise struck by a teaching component that manifests itself in dramatically flat scenes, as characters rattle off explanations of Asperger's.

I suppose these scenes serve their purpose, though these days Asperger's and other disorders on the autism spectrum are pretty well known, thanks partly to widely publicized speculation - I stress speculation - linking autism to childhood vaccinations. At any rate, once the pedagogy is over, Adam emerges as an entertaining and sad meditation on the disorder.

The film begins in sorrow. For years Adam (Hugh Dancy) has lived in New York City with his father, but his father has died. Adam is left alone in their apartment, where he eats a rigid menu of TV dinners. During the day he wears tweedy outfits to his job as an electronics engineer at a toy company. For a while after his father's death he maintains his routines. But he is running out of TV dinners.

Into Adam's routine enters Beth (Rose Byrne), a new neighbor who's a schoolteacher and an aspiring children's-book writer, and who has impossibly lovely dark eyes. They meet cute - or, rather, awkward - in the laundry room, and then Beth issues one of those non-invitation invitations that define modern socializing: Come out with us later, or not, whatever. The lack of specificity panics Adam, who we soon learn has Asperger's and can be literal-minded to the point of paralysis.

The two enter into a sweet romance, even as Beth confronts unsettling truths about her affluent parents, played by Amy Irving and Peter Gallagher. Adam struggles to find a new job, and in interesting sequences Beth, who has been reading up, coaches him in social basics that he hasn't mastered: How to greet people, how to maintain eye contact, or at least simulate it.

The mystery of Asperger's emerges in these scenes. Like Adam, at some point I had to learn how to greet people and make eye contact. I also see myself in Adam's geeky, highly technical hobby interests. So what makes me different from Adam? I'm not sure, and the film makes the case that the difference is not vast.

Aspects of the film make me uneasy. Life with Asperger's plainly is a struggle, but I take from Adam the lesson that people with the disorder may find solace in having a slick wardrobe, a really hot girlfriend and a posh Manhattan pad. There also is some heavy-handed imagery involving a family of raccoons (?) in Central Park. "They don't really belong here, but here they are," someone murmurs sagely. Allegorical point taken.

But Adam succeeds, thanks in no small part to Dancy's performance. When his character is panicking the terror is palpable, and in other scenes Dancy is compelling in moments of rage and moments of tenderness.

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