Adam has tea in his space suit. (Fox Searchlight)
Adam is a human alien.
Born of flesh and blood right in New York City, he nevertheless doesn't think, act or feel like others. He's not so distant as to be inaccessible, but he's just odd enough to be confusing. And frustrating. And perhaps just a little bit scary.
Telling stories about people who are mentally different is a dangerous venture. Go too far in one direction and you've got a freak show, veer off in another and you're mired in the mawkish.
"Adam," a small, smart film about a young man trying to survive and thrive with a type of autism known as Asperger's syndrome, manages to walk a mild middle line that acknowledges limitation while allowing for hope.
Hugh Dancy ("The Jane Austen Book Club") stars as Adam. Nearing 30, his father has just passed away, and he now lives alone in the NYC apartment they've always shared. Socially awkward at best, and given to long speeches on the nature of astronomy and telescopes, he works as an electronic engineer at a toy factory.
He is just settling into solitary life when Beth (Rose Byrne from "Knowing" and TV's "Damages") moves into his apartment building. After a few chance encounters, Beth -- a schoolteacher who wants to write children's books -- realizes there's something different about Adam. Eventually, he clues her in to his condition, and she realizes that while he's incapable of feeling "normal" emotion, he's also incapable of lying, a fact the romantically burned Beth finds attractive.
And here comes the leap of faith, as the perfectly attractive Beth decides to enter in a relationship with the sweet weird guy upstairs, knowing full well that he will not fit in at cocktail parties, that he's never left the city, that he rambles off on verbal tangents, and he rarely understands jokes.
But leap Beth does, and the film lets the consequences of Beth's decision play out. Those consequences become complicated when Adam loses his job and must search for a new one, and then complicated even further when Beth's well-off accountant father (Peter Gallagher) is indicted for fraud.
Which fits, because writer-director Max Mayer builds his entire film on the question of honesty -- its value, its limitations, its simple beauty and easy corruption. Is Beth using Adam just because she can trust him in a world filled with little lies? Can Adam learn to understand life's slight, kind betrayals?
Dancy has to balance innocence and physically brittle movements in his portrayal, and he does so with grace and even sly humor. But the truly difficult acting job here is Byrne's as she has to sell Beth's attraction to Adam while revealing her character's ultimate vulnerability, as well. In a very subtle way, she is magnificent.
"Adam" can't escape the sentiment of its setting. There's no getting around the character's plight as an eternal outsider or the natural sympathy it draws. But writer-director Mayer never loses control of this fact, offering a story that's both sweet and tart, unique and familiar. Limitations and hope; who doesn't wrestle with each?